Jesus, the Prophet, Came Preaching

Jesus was more than a mere prophet – he was the sinless Son of God, the human-divine sacrifice for our sins. But he is a prophet nonetheless, and the greatest prophet the world has ever known.

We like to think of Jesus in any kind of role except that of preacher and prophet, but preaching was a primary component of his earthly ministry. He was a truth-teller and herald of the good news and eternal truth of God.

Mark, who was first to write an inspired biography of Jesus, jumps right into Jesus’ adult years and gives us a summary introduction to Jesus’ ministry with these words…

Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”

Mark 1:14-15 NLT

Jesus’ ministry was, of course, more than just words, but he started his ministry with words, uttered vital words from the cross, and gave even more words of empowerment after his resurrection. Preaching the good news mattered a great deal to Jesus, and preaching the good news is still the primary ministry of the church two thousand years later.

Preaching, as a communication method, may sound outdated and unpopular, but that’s only because of the traditional baggage we attach to it. The fact is, human beings are still deeply moved and motivated by the art of spoken word, even in our visually-stimulating media-rich culture.

From campaign stump speeches to TED talks, we listen to words conveyed through human personality.

THAT Jesus preached matters greatly to how we serve truth to the world today, but WHAT he preached matters even more. And this is where I believe we misunderstand him most.

Jesus didn’t just preach “good news” TO people.

His message wasn’t motivational fluff. It wasn’t self-help gibberish or mystical, pithy sayings. It was good news, but there was a call to action. Specifically, there was a call to repentance based on the good news. Jesus expected his listeners to consider changing their minds about God, about sin, about themselves, and about their way of life. He called them to a radical commitment to believe and trust in him.

When we simply preach good things without any call to repentance, we make the good news seem a little too good. Don’t change. Just stay where you are and God will overlook the deep brokenness within you.

On the other hand…

Jesus didn’t just preach “repentance” AT people.

My big problem with most street corner preachers is that they claim to speak a bold message of repentance – turn or burn, get right or get ready to hell – but what they really do is skip the good news or skim over it at best and head right for the call to action.

When we skip the good news and start our presentations of the gospel with “You’re a sinner… own it… admit it… repent of it… or else…” then we make the good news seem… not very good. In fact, the gospel is the best news anyone could ever hear, and we should present it so.

What, then, was Jesus’ message?

Jesus preached the best news the world has ever heard with an invitation FOR people to turn from sin, trust him, and have their lives changed forever!

Jesus started with the wonderful news that the deliverance broken humanity had been waiting for so long had finally arrived. And more specifically, the messiah for whom Israel had been waiting so long was finally being presented. Sin and the grave would soon be defeated. The King of all kings would be coronated over a Kingdom into which all who would believe in and follow him would be included.

The gospel is really, really good news for broken sinners. Luke is a little more specific about one of Jesus’ earliest messages. One day in the synagogue, Jesus announced the purpose of his ministry by quoting Isaiah…

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”

Luke 4:18-19 NLT

Do you hear that? Because of Jesus, you can be rescued from povertyreleased from slaveryrestored in your sight and your soul, and redeemed from all oppression! Addictions can be broken. Diseases lose their power. Demons have to flee. Cruelty and tyranny won’t last. The gospel is good news!

One of the reasons we doubt the power of the gospel is because we fail to understand that God’s Kingdom is both now, and not yet. Deliverance is both gradual and eventual. Victory is sure, but it is only enjoyed partially, until the King returns to be worshipped by all.

And as Jesus preached the good news of the ultimate deliverance from sin’s curse, he also called his hearers to respond. His calling to repentance and faith is both a command and an invitation. It is the required response of sinners to the gospel, and it is the offer of a good Savior to the broken.

Biblical preaching is both a presentation of the good news of Jesus and a challenge to embrace it with the whole heart and mind. Both are necessary in our faithfulness to the great commission of Jesus to his church.

If all you can do is yell at people about their sin, don’t call it gospel preaching. And if all you have the courage to do is speak the positive things of Christianity without any call to repentance and faith, don’t call it gospel preaching.

I’m a big believer in being creative, in striving to communicate well, and in adapting our presentation methods to each new generation. And I think the content of Scripture ought to be presented in a way that connects with the brokenness and deep-seated needs of its audience. But at the end of the day, here is the non-negotiable core of all good preaching – preach the good news of Jesus, and invite people to embrace him by repenting of their sins and believing in him alone.

3 Vital Lessons from One of the Best Leaders I Know

I’ve hung out with megachurch pastors and I’ve read plenty of books and biographies of great leaders. But there is a hero from whom I’ve learned more about relational leadership than anyone else – my wife, Angie Cox.

I’ve learned about preaching, administration, and creative communications from all kinds of well-known people, but Angie has been my primary source of wisdom about what matters most – influencing people to grow. I’m sharpened, challenged, and shaped daily as I observe her, hear her heart, and see her in action.

Let me just recount some of the ways she’s powerfully and directly impacted my life:

  • When I was an out-of-church and spiritually half-dead teenager, she brought me to her church where I began to grow again.
  • When I was a quiet, young, inexperienced and very introverted college student and pastor, she helped me come out of my shell.
  • When I have struggled to believe that God could use me for his purposes, she’s reminded me that he can indeed.
  • When I’ve gone home discouraged and distressed, she’s picked me up and re-affirmed her support for me.
  • In the darkest corner of my spiritual journey when I felt like giving up on myself and everything else, she showed me so much grace it changed my life forever.

For over a decade of ministry, she played the pastor’s wife part the best she could (and she had a great role model in her own mother!). But the last five years have been altogether different. It’s been a new kind of journey as I sit in awe and watch her as a church planter and ministry leader. Not just my wife. Not just the “pastor’s wife,” but as a leader in her own right.

She’s helped launch small groups, planned women’s events, gathered people with leadership potential around our dining room table, counseled with the hurting, and trained others to counsel the hurting. She’s had crucial insight on every big decision we’ve made as a church. She’s stopped me from doing and saying dumb things, and she’s challenged me to take risks in faith.

She named the church, adopted the local school we serve, launched our women’s ministry, and started and later handed off our kids ministry to other leaders. She dreamed up our big annual week of serving the community, made contact with local nonprofits, and has helped pick an amazing staff.

She’s also helped lead worship and she’s taught by my side on stage, but she humbly avoids the spotlight and shies away from the pressure to be more vocal. She avoids competing with others who may desire position, and genuinely wants the very best for everyone on the team.

I wanted to pass along to the rest of the world some of the best lessons I’ve learned by observing Angie.

1. To really lead people, you’ve gotta love People.

Love paves the way for leadership. No amount of good organizational strategy can compare to the power of doing life with people, soul-on-soul. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has slipped away to take a phone call only for me to hear her crying softly with the person on the other end as she encourages and ministers to them in their point of need.

She’s reminded me dozens of times that people matter way more than paperwork, that routine tasks are secondary to the big mission, and that if we aren’t doing what we’re doing for Jesus, then it isn’t worth doing at all. She weeps over the broken and longs to help everyone she can, and her quiet example reminds inspires me.

2. Leadership is very little about what happens on the stage.

Being a polished speaker doesn’t make you a great leader. Great leaders tap some people on the shoulder and invite them to sit around a table. I’ve watched as Angie has invited others to go away on retreats to talk about leadership, to attend conferences, and to gather as leaders to challenge one another.

I’ve watched as Angie has asked people to take on an area of responsibility, then walked them through the process of getting started. She dreams big in terms of the future and she demonstrates a passion about getting people prepared for it.

She’s an amazing speaker and teacher – more than she realizes, by far – but doesn’t seek the stage for her own glory. She’s never asked for a title and is often reluctant to accept the opportunities that have come her way.

3. Spiritual Leadership is Leadership That Is Uniquely Spiritual

I’ve been doing ministry long enough that I can coast for several weeks, or longer, in my own ability. That doesn’t mean I’m leading well, but I’m leading adequately without spending a great deal of time in preparation. Angie reminds me regularly, though, that I really don’t want to lead in my own power and ability.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to make a decision impulsively and she’s given me pause with the question, have you heard from God about this yet? And I’ve never seen anyone agonize more over the weight of speaking at an event on a spiritual topic than her when she’s preparing to do so.

Christian leaders must stay sensitive to the voice of God. Angie has taught me to desire a consistent prayer life more than consistent preaching success.

Many of the people who are finding their way to Grace Hills now have no idea just how much Angie has influenced their lives from behind the scenes. And many of those now enjoying opportunities to lead may not realize that it was Angie who did the hard work, with limited resources, of paving the way for others.

She’s not a Pastor, but if she were, she’d be a way better one than me. She doesn’t speak from the stage regularly, but I’m convinced that if she did, she’d do a way better job than me any day. She’s not directly in charge of the church’s staff, but if she were, we’d probably be way ahead of where we are now.

I want the world to know what Angie is too humble to say about herself – she’s the real brains and heart of this operation. She’s essential. I couldn’t do this without her. We wouldn’t be the church we are without her. And the future looks brighter to me than ever because she’s by my side, living out an amazing grace story.

Angie, you’re really the best leader I know, and I hope you keep it up. I’ll just keep on trying to act like I actually know what I’m doing while watching you!

Two False Assumptions to Leave Behind When You Preach

Public Preaching
photo credit: pand0ra23

I realize that we pastors are going way beyond motivational speaking in our sermons. We are sharing the gospel and leading people to the cross. But we are still speakers and communicators nonetheless, and our effectiveness and influence depend on our understanding something about the nature of speaking.

Seth Godin, a marketing guru with much to teach the church, wrote about speaking and had this to say:

Speaking in public: two errors that lead to fear…

1. You believe that you are being actively judged

2. You believe that the subject of the talk is you

When you stand up to give a speech, there’s a temptation to believe that the audience is actually interested in you.

This just isn’t true. (Or if it is, it doesn’t benefit you to think that it is).

You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged.

And he goes on to say:

The members of the audience are interested in themselves. The audience wants to know what they can use, what they can learn, or at the very least, how they can be entertained.

Source: Seth Godin

“Preaching is not about you, so stop focusing on being the star… focus on the power of the gospel.”

  Buffer

This is truth. Seth is wise. Obviously, we are called to do more than simply please an audience. We are heralds of truth. But understanding what people are expecting or searching for when they sit down to listen to us certainly helps us communicate truth in a way that taps into the audience’s interest.

I agree with Seth. Preaching isn’t about you, so stop focusing on being the star, the celebrity, the eloquent master communicator out to impress your hearers. Instead, focus on the power of the gospel content to change lives now and for eternity.

The next time you preach, just before speaking, pray something like this:

God, help me to glorify You, honor Your truth, and speak with the confidence that what I have to say matters. And help me to love these people enough to give them what I know they need – Your Word.

5 Ways to Preach Like a Pharisee

Pharisees and Jesus
Photo by bbaltimore.

Many of the Pharisees were probably great teachers and skilled speakers. I’m sure many were charismatic, skilled communicators. But by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Pharisees, on the whole, were killing the culture around them spiritually. Jesus had a lot of work to do just to unwire people from the performance-driven, legalistic trap of pharisaism.

I’ve been guilty of preaching like a Pharisee before, and as I review my sermons from the past, I cringe a bit as I peruse certain periods of my ministry when I placed undue burdens on my listeners in the name of “preaching the Word.” I’m writing out of my own past tendencies (and present tendencies I’m still trying to snuff out) as well as out of what I observe across the landscape of evangelical preaching.

The following tips will work to draw a moderate-sized crowd. A pulpit characterized by negativity and belligerence will draw a moderate-sized crowd of masochists who draw energy to go on another day by being beaten up spiritually. But it won’t make Jesus-like, craveable disciples. So use them at your own risk.

How do you preach like a Pharisee?

Preach Your Opinions Instead of the Absolute Truth of Scripture

Exalting your own opinions about extra-biblical issues as though obedience to them is equivalent to obeying Scripture is dangerous. It creates the very burdens on the backs of people that Jesus came to remove. It also hurts the trust of your hearers. Consider my hero, W. A. Criswell who once promoted segregation as a biblical mandate only to repent and change his policy later. His opinion about a cultural issue caused many to question his credibility. Thankfully, he had such a high respect for the authority of Scripture that he changed course, publicly and with apology. Besides, you’re probably wrong more than you think you are.

Promote Moralism Over Grace-based Living

Your role is to present biblical truth, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the lives of your hearers with the power of God’s revelation. Your role is not to make people behave. Repentance has to do with changing the mind and belief system so that behaviors follow, but when we promote better behavior, we put the cart before the horse and fail to exalt the grace that enables us to live differently.

Make People Feel Guilty Enough to Make Short-term Commitments

Guilt is a terrible motivator. Yes, we sinners must come to grips with our sin by means of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring that conviction. I can get people to give more money, sign up to serve in a ministry, or go share the gospel by making them feel guilty about not giving or doing enough. Or I can empower them to give, serve, and share by inspiring them with hope. God dangles rewards in front of us in eternity as motivation for action rather than feelings of guilt over our sinful past. I owe Him everything, but He doesn’t remind me of that. He simply challenges me to go forward in hope and for the pure enjoyment of Him and His grace.

Beat People Into Skepticism

Jesus once told the Pharisees that they had a tendency to make people “twice the child of hell as they were before.” What did He mean? People had come to the Pharisees, as religious leaders, to find the ultimate fulfillment God could offer. What they received was a long list of rules that were impossible to keep. After their repeated failures, they would finally turn away in disgust and it would be a long time before they listened to another religious leader again. Sound familiar? My heart breaks for the victims of spiritually abusive churches that have little understanding or compassion for the hurts and problems of people in pain.

Dress the Part

If you wear a three-piece suit and cuff links because you’re into that sort of thing or because it appeals to the community you’re trying to reach, more power to you. But if you just like to wear the “preacher” uniform and appear lofty and ministerial, repent now. I get a bit nauseated when I see a leader who has that “preacher strut.” I won’t describe it – you’ll know it when you see it. It’s usually the result of my desire to impress my peers outweighing my desire to connect with the lost. This is not a rant against “dressing up.” It’s just a warning against trying to “dress the part” of the superior religious leader.

More than ever, a skeptical, broken world needs our authentic, truth-saturated, grace-based, Spirit-filled message of the cross and the resurrection. And they need to see it embodied in our lives as much as they need to hear it proclaimed from the podium.

Seven Ways Twitter Will Improve Your Preaching and Teaching

John Calvin published 22 volumes of commentaries on the Bible and Martin Lloyd-Jones published 9 volumes on Romans alone. What if you could remove all of the non-essential language, antiquated stories, and strip all of that knowledge down to some bite-sized, transportable truths? There is certainly room for argument against such condensation of historic works, but we have to realize that we live in a society inundated with more information in a day than Calvin consumed in a year.

In other words, the ability to be succinct and concise is worth gold when communicating truth in today’s culture. And Twitter helps. The ability to write volumes of words is impressive, but possibly not as impressive as the ability to take a deep and complex theological truth or spiritual application and package it in 140 characters or less.

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Why Avoid the Tough Questions?

Last night in our midweek Bible study, as I was stumbling around the book of 1 Corinthians, a conversation / discussion erupted. Actually several did. We somehow wound up on the issues of people receiving “revelations” and the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (being baptized as a part of being born again).

I’m not writing to address either of those questions here (though I’ll tell you I’m wary of anyone with a “revelation” and don’t believe baptism is part of the new birth). I’m writing instead to challenge you as a Pastor, leader, writer, influencer, or whatever else you might be, to tackle the tough questions instead of avoiding them.

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