Preaching Christ: as the essence of God’s Revelation

Every preacher knows – at least in some sense – that we are called to ‘preach Christ’ as we expound the Scriptures. We heard it in our homiletics classes in Seminary and we’ve been challenged about it in the numerous seminars, conferences and workshops on preaching we attend in the course of our ministry. But what does it mean and how are we to go about ‘preaching Christ’ in a way that neither does violence to the text, nor comes across to our hearers as contrived and artificial? Over the next series of posts I thought it might be useful to explore this important issue from a number of different angles, beginning in this article with some reflection on Christ as the essence of God’s self-disclosure in Holy Scripture.

The fourth Gospel begins with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning’ (Jn 1.1-2). John uses the Greek word Logos to refer to Jesus as the Christ. It was a deliberate choice in that this word had unique currency in the world of his day. In the Greek and Roman world of that time, influenced as it was by Greek philosophy, it was a word that spoke of knowledge and understanding – getting to the heart of our place in the universe and the reason for our existence. However, it was a word that also resonated with the Jewish quest for understanding and making sense of the world, life and everything. It features prominently in the writings of the 1st Century Jewish philosopher, Philo.

In his recent commentary on John’s Gospel, Frederick Dale Bruner explains the Evangelist’s choice of word at this point in terms of how God has chosen to ‘talk’ through Christ as his incarnate Son in a unique and ultimate way. He points to the fact that just as human words (which are audible) are intended to make known human thoughts (which are inaudible), so it is with God and the way he has made himself known through the Lord Jesus.

The writer of Hebrews echoes this point in an even more definitive way in the opening lines of this letter. He says,

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (He 1.1-3)

The idea of the ‘Word’ who is God, used by John, is replaced by the God who ‘has spoken to us by his Son’ in ‘these last days’ in Hebrews. Given the context of this statement in Hebrews, against the backdrop of the ‘many times’ and ‘various ways’ in which God has made himself known in the past, there is an ultimacy about the way in which his entire self-revelation crystallises in his incarnate Son. Just as ‘in [Christ] all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Col 2.9) so the fullness of the revelation of God – as encompassed in the entirety of Scripture – makes Christ known.

Clearly this brings us into the realm of the mystery and majesty of who and what God is and how he can be known; but it brings home to us the wonderful fact that God has accommodated himself to us through his incarnate Son in a way that speaks to us within the limitations of our human minds. As Calvin so helpfully expressed it, ‘As a nursing mother lisps to the child in her arms’, so God has done the same in the way he makes himself known to humanity through his word.

Jesus himself puts his finger on what this means through what he says to his disciples: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14.9). So, since almost two thirds of the Bible predates the incarnation of Christ; but contains the greater part of God’s self-revelation in all its parts, Christ in effect is saying, ‘If you want to see more clearly what the Father has been revealing throughout the Old Testament, look at me!’ He is quite literally the embodiment of all that God is.

How does this help us to understand what it means to ‘preach Christ’ as we open up the Scriptures from the pulpit? – By keeping in mind that the Scriptures in their totality are simultaneously ‘God’s Word’ and ‘the Word of Christ’, the revelation of God and of his promised Saviour. It is impossible to separate Christ from his Word at any point – even in the dark parts of the Bible, like the book of Judges. So in our preparation of any given text, we will always have the question in the back of our mind, ‘How does this relate to and reveal Christ?’

The answer to that question can never be mechanical or formulaic, any more than the way we leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go and in all that we do. Just as someone with an eye for fine art can look at a painting and say, ‘That’s a Rembrandt, or a Van Gogh’, because they have come to ‘know’ the artist; so, the more we grow in our knowledge and love of Christ, the more we will ‘see’ him in every part of Scripture. Our hermeneutical sensitivities become increasingly fine-tuned by knowing him more fully.

Mark Johnston