Preaching Christ: the Living and the Speaking Word

As we further explore what it means to ‘preach Christ from all the Scriptures’, another key strand is to remind ourselves of the first of his threefold offices. He is not only our Priest and King; but he is primarily God’s great Prophet. It is his business to make God known.

The expectation that a unique prophet would one day be sent by God was deeply embedded in the mind of the people of Israel from their earliest days. Moses, speaking the Israelites prior to their entrance into the Promised Land, told them,

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him…The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. (Ex 18.15-19)

In part this was, of course, the formal institution of the office of prophet among the Israelites. Elsewhere Moses provides the detail as to how the people were to distinguish between true and false prophets. But in a deeper sense, he was telling the people to expect another prophet who would be God’s ultimate messenger. One who would be none other than the promised Messiah himself.

This detail explains people’s response to Jesus, not only in relation to the content and authority of his earthly ministry, but especially to the miracles he performed: ‘A great prophet has appeared among us’ (Lk 7.16). It also explains the Pharisees’ question to John the Baptist: ‘Are you the Prophet?’ and his negative response (Jn 1.21). Jesus was indeed God’s promised prophet through whom God would speak his final word.

Jesus himself picks up on this detail in a very pointed way in the fourth of the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ and its wider context (Jn 10.11). He says, ‘the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (Jn 10.3). He says of his ‘other sheep who are not of this sheep pen’ – speaking of those he will gather from among the Gentiles – ‘They too will listen to my voice’ (Jn 10.16). But, most pointedly, he says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me’ (Jn 10.27).

How does this relate to preaching through the ages? Wherever and whenever the Word is faithfully proclaimed, the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, is heard and the Holy Spirit will use it to awaken the spiritually dead and bring them to faith and salvation. Our confidence as preachers is in his promise to do this. More than this, as we speak into all the ‘other’ spheres in which lost sheep are living, we can be sure that it will be the voice of Jesus that will resonate with them and draw them irresistibly to himself. In that sense Christ is both the Message and the Messenger.

All these different facets of what it means to preach Christ converge in and are demonstrated for us in what Edmund Clowney has described as the ‘Seven mile Sermon’ between Jerusalem and Emmaus. It was that journey on the first Easter Day when Jesus drew alongside two disciples who were still reeling from all that had happened over the previous three days since Jesus’ arrest.

In the midst of their perplexity, Luke tells us, ‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures about himself’ (Lk 24.27). In that defining sermon, as we have already noted, he is clearly both the message and the messenger, the proclamation and the preacher.

We are not given the details of what that ‘sermon’ contained. It cannot have been an exhaustive exposition of the entire Old Testament, showing all the ways in which it makes him known. But it was most certainly a watershed moment for these disciples in terms of how they began to see and understand the Hebrew Bible. For the very first time their eyes were opened to see that Christ is its central message. He is the one thread that holds together the many and varied other threads that are woven through its pages.

It would be easy to regard this incident as unique and unrepeatable in the history of redemption; but there at least two other places in the New Testament that would suggest otherwise and have us realise that what he did on the Emmaus Road is paradigm for what he continues to do wherever his word is truly proclaimed.

The first is in Romans where Paul is spelling out the unique role of preaching in God’s work of gathering the lost to himself (Ro 10.14-18). Many translations manage to obscure what Paul is saying in the key verse in this passage; but it literally reads, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard?’ (Ro 10.14). Paul is not merely referring to sermons ‘about’ Christ; but to the Christ who speaks through his preached word. This is reinforced by what he says a few verses later: ‘Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, an the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Ro 10.17). Christ is not only the message, but the one who is at work proclaiming it – even through weak and fallible human agents such as ourselves.

The second reference is found in Ephesians. There – speaking of how both Jews and Gentiles had been brought to faith in that city through the gospel – Paul says. ‘He [Christ] came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near’ (Eph 2.17). The obvious question is, ‘When did Jesus visit Ephesus?’ It was clearly not during his earthly life and ministry! It can only have been as his apostolic ambassadors went there in his name, proclaiming him as Lord and Saviour that his voice was heard and all kinds of people were saved.

What an encouragement to every preacher who seeks to labour faithfully in the Scriptures and proclaim Christ from them! Through their message and regardless of their language or accent, the voice of Christ continues to be heard throughout the world.

Mark Johnston