In two thousand years of church history, preaching has undergone an evolution of purpose and meaning. The earliest form of what became Christian preaching is witnessed in the declarations of the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic tradition ended with Malachi (John the Baptist for some) and gave rise to a different style of proclamation. This was the rabbinic tradition with its Jewish sages who, like the Greeks, taught in a master-disciple approach. Jesus followed this method of preaching and demonstrated to his culture his stellar ability to teach—”Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to him?” (Mark 6:2).
Preaching was very simple in the New Testament church period and accompanied only by the scriptures. It was common that the teacher would sit as the people stood in attention. Interestingly, whenever the discourse was very good, the people would applaud, offer vocal acclamations, wave handkerchiefs, and even toss garments. Many would write the sermon word-for-word in order to save it for posterity.
Lakesides, private homes, synagogues, and public streets were all used for preaching; for a time there were no edifices specifically designed for such public discourse. In fact, it was considered corrupt practice when churches later began to be constructed for ceremonial display with great alters, images, and processional aisles. This became more common throughout the fourth century as heathen temples and basilicas were converted to Christian churches.
During the second century the church began organizing itself into a more unified body, and its preaching adapted to these changes as well. The bishops or an appointed presbyter bore the responsibility of speaking the word of God. Preaching was mainly hortatory, or exhortative, and termed by purpose: tractate (exposition), disputation (polemic), allocution (doctrinal thesis), and homily (popular conversation). Preaching was also done to reflect on events and occasions.
The homily has characterized preaching for most of church history. It is not greatly different from the sermon (lecture providing religious instruction), except that it is given to free, explanatory discourse on a familiar topic, whereas the sermon holds tightly to homiletics. Eventually, the homily shortened to a form known as the postil that was a mere glossing over a text with brief explanation.
In time preaching began to lose its original intent and was gradually replaced by ceremony, panegyric (eulogistic oration) for saints and martyrs, and veneration for Mary in the growing Roman Catholic tradition. The Protestant Reformers are credited with returning preaching to its early roots in the saving message of Christ.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
Nothing is news to God. Our common, human customs and contingencies are atypical of Heaven. What are recent events or developing stories to us were in the mind of God before time. Astounding as it may be, God’s omniscience should be encouraging to those who trust him. His providence means that he mightily and lovingly controls all that can be known. Nothing happens that is outside of his intelligence.
That includes us, too. God knows every aspect of our lives. He understands the range of our unique personalities, our likes and dislikes, desires and temptations, potential, and even the possibilities of an infinite combination of our choices. He knew the when-and-where of our birth before the world existed. He knows about our work, finances, relationships, goals, and health. He has already seen our final days and cross into the afterlife. Again, this is encouraging to know.
He Knows Us
Sometimes we get moody with God, however, because we too know some things about him and ourselves, if only meager by comparison. One thing we realize is that his great holiness and our sinful imprudence don’t comport, and we find it inelegant and awfully hard-to-believe that, beyond our relationship, he still chooses us for his service.
Then, with what has to be exasperating to God, we find other non-issues with which to excuse ourselves from the divine call. Jeremiah saw himself as too young (1:6). Gideon felt he was too poor and wrestled feelings of God’s abandonment (Judges 6:13, 15). Moses deemed himself insignificant, speech-impeded, and ignorant of God (Ex. 3:11-13; 4:10). The first task seems to be God getting us out of the way of his using us!
God tells Jeremiah in very concrete language, “I knew everything there was to know about you before your life began. And I had already determined to use you as my prophet!” This had to be an eye-opening moment for Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 1:5 is one of those verses people often whip out with some use of emotional provocation; however, if we stop and think about it—and put ourselves in Jeremiah’s place—we might catch a glimpse of God’s greatness implied therein.
Still Within His Reach
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives a list of qualifications for overseers and deacons in the church. The bar of moral character is set high. They are reasonable qualities by traditional leadership standards and Christian ideals. Even the secular world today affirms such expectations of Christian leadership.
But to say that Paul’s list requires perfection in any way is to miss the point. God doesn’t call perfect people because there are none. All people, even the most spiritually disciplined ones, daily deal with the very personal problem of sin; and let no one convince you that he or she does not.
Let’s be honest about this: There are many reasons for God to reject us for his service, reasons well beyond the ones we can point out to him. He knows what else lies within our hearts and what will develop there; the circumstances that might activate vice; and how we will deal with it. Still, he chooses us.
Despite all our failings and misgivings, he is eager to make us his ambassadors and to display his strength where we can only prove weak. It is the depth and glory of his love.
So after we’ve messed up big-time, lost our heads and sinned to the max, wanted no part of God and his ways, and then regained our spiritual composure and wondered if he could possibly still use us, let us rest assured that he never left our side and tells us, as he did Peter, “I’ve already prayed for you that your faith wouldn’t fail. Now that you’ve repented and returned to me, go strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32, my paraphrase).
Our Joyful Obligation
This underscores another point. The fact that God is relentless to use us in his service should drive us to serve him better. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 4:1-2, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.”
Such mercy should strike the chord of spiritual discipline within us and cause us to yield to the Holy Spirit’s work to transform us in Christlikeness. This includes our resolution to fight and conquer sin, our willingness to accept our eternal status as God’s debtors, and our conscientious endeavor to think about ourselves as God does.
And to be clear, this isn’t just about those called by God to special or highly visible ministry, such as a pastor. God will use anyone that avails him- or herself to him for the smallest of tasks that spread his character, name, and kingdom. It’s just a matter of degree on our part: how much of ourselves are we willing to give him, including those weak areas of our lives?
No Need to Hide
Let’s be even more candid about Jeremiah 1:5. God, knowing everything there is to possibly know about us, knew the sinful penchants and weights we would deal with in life—the excesses, vile urges, secret rages, and sinful comforts we all have faced.
We hide our indecencies from others like we conceal our naked bodies. We act this way toward God, too. We feel that what is odious and shameful before others should also be hidden from God, for he certainly detests it more; ergo, he will certainly reject us as people do.
First, it is pointless to hide anything from God because he knew about it before we did. Second, we are right to evince an attitude of shame and culpability for the weak and sinful parts of our lives. Yes, Christ took our shame so that we wouldn’t have to be shamed by our sin; however, we respect God’s holiness and should feel uncomfortable about sin controlling any part of us.
But, third, God doesn’t reject us in our sin but asks us to draw near with naked honesty. Only then can we find “the grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). God is not like us. Exposure to his light gives freedom. Remember, Jesus came and took our sin upon himself in order to place his righteousness on us.
Concealing weakness and sin, apart from being a silly thing to do in God’s sight, is unbiblical and more harmful than helpful. Solomon states it best: “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
David says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps. 32:3). God can do more with the heart that prays, Lord, I’m struggling and I need your help, than with the one, like Adam in the Garden, who runs to hide from him.
And let’s be real—some things from our past lives we may struggle with until we die. But God honors the one who keeps fighting while relying on his grace not to be overcome.
Even Our Weakness…an Offering
Moreover, God doesn’t only use us despite our vices but also because of them. Two fish and five loaves of bread were useless to a crowd of multiple thousands. But such a weakness given into Jesus’s hands became a miracle. This is ministry.
The weak areas of our lives that we’re willing to place in God’s hands can be the starting place of healing for someone else. What we are willing to share of our own struggles and deliverances, God can use to draw others to himself. We may not be able to share every detail about our troubled or sinful past, but our honesty before God, in the least, will keep us compassionate and empathic toward others who suffer in ways we did or still do (1 Cor. 6:11).
And as we know of Christ’s ministry, compassion is a portal of the glory of God.
This is why a revamp toward deep spiritual discipline is important. The fruit of the Spirit growing where sin once abounded in our lives is the safeguard that we won’t disregard those who find themselves in our former, unenlightened state. We have an obligation to God to be transformed by what has altered our circumstance.
Jesus, in Matt. 18:21-35, tells the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven his debt of 10,000 bags of gold but couldn’t forgive his fellow servant’s debt of 100 silver coins. This incurs God’s judgment. When we’ve received grace, we can offer grace; however, to refuse to do so is egregious sin.
Content to Be His
Thank God that sin and weakness isn’t enough to change God’s mind about us. He still desires us and can use our lives and various situations to bring others closer to himself. So to all of our shamefulness, outrage, incredulity, and excuses, we are still his choice.
He could send the angels in dazzling displays of heaven-on-earth to preach us out of sin and convince everyone to believe. But, no, he uses “jars of clay” instead (2 Cor. 4:7), cracked and stained and fragile, to show other cracked pots how they too can display the beauty of salvation.