Should we try to preach like Jesus?
Just as the work of redemption belonged to Jesus alone, so elements of his preaching can only be reflected in ours.
One of the most interesting debates in homiletical circles is the degree to which contemporary preachers should preach like Jesus. On the surface, we might think it absolutely necessary to preach like the greatest Preacher ever. Isn’t he, after all, the perfect model? Shouldn’t we exhibit his simplicity, his connection with people, his boldness?
Some go even further and suggest that 21st-century preachers should adopt Jesus’s methodology. Often authors and homiletics professors support their approach to preaching by appealing to some aspect of his technique or style. He was a storyteller, they say, so sermons should be stories. The suggestions continue: He spoke in parables. He preached inductively. He preached deductively. He preached gently. He preached boldly. Opposing approaches to preaching often locate their respective convictions in Jesus’s preaching.
In some ways, however, modern preachers should no more emulate Jesus’s preaching than contemporary Christians should copy the crucifixion. Just as the work of redemption was his alone, a work in which we may merely share, so elements of his preaching can only be reflected in ours, but never actually appropriated.
Jesus preached about himself
The unique and distinctive marks of Jesus’s preaching are inextricable from his person, specifically his place in the Godhead. He preached with an intrinsic authority; our authority is derived. He looked into the hearts of men and women and perfectly saw their worth by divine creation and their sin by human commission; we can only approximate knowledge of either one. His preaching had the unmistakable gleam of the glory of God; on our best days, we struggle to get self out of the way and hope God might just show up for a little while.
At times the heavenly prerogative and intent of his preaching was to “conceal everything from the outsiders” (Mark 4:11) in order to keep to his divine timetable and plan, while our purpose can only be to help everyone—without distinction or discrimination—understand clearly the text’s meaning.
Most of all, Jesus preached about himself. Admittedly, for us that would be not only blasphemous, but pathetic. Like Paul, we must declare,
We don’t go around preaching about ourselves; we preach Christ Jesus, the Lord. All we say about ourselves is that we are your servants because of what Jesus has done for us. (2 Cor. 4:5)
From the time he announced to an exasperated Joseph and Mary that he had to be about his Father’s business, Jesus engaged in a self-centered and decidedly theocentric ministry of proclamation. As odd as that sounds, he could do nothing else. He is the Son of God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. To preach anything other than self would be to deprive his audience of knowing the only way of escape from their spiritual squalor and alienation from God. Were mere mortals to preach self, we would be delusional. Jesus, on the other hand, was just being accurate.
His entire life was a series of sermons about himself. Whether he was standing on a ship beside the shore of Galilee preaching to a pressing throng of listeners or quietly speaking in hushed tones with his disciples in an upper room, Jesus was always preaching his glorious self, revealing more of himself. Without him, nothing else would matter. What would the kingdom be without a King? Where are the sheep without the Great Shepherd? What are the branches without the vine? What is a story about forgiveness without the one who alone can forgive? The Last Supper fades into meaninglessness apart from his body and his blood.
He has too much on us
For all these reasons, it would be extremely dangerous—even blasphemous—to indiscriminately model one’s preaching after Jesus. He just has too much on us. He’s God after all, and has a few more tools in his homiletical utility belt than we are equipped to handle.
On the other hand, the need of our day is every bit as acute as when Jesus walked on the earth. The truth he taught remains the only antidote to the world’s spiritual poison. The insight of the parables, the beauty of the Beatitudes, and the woes against the ways of religious hypocrites are not at all out of style or step with the times.
While we cannot preach like Jesus in certain ways, we must follow his example in some significant identifiable ways.
The key lies in distinguishing the person of Jesus from the preaching of Jesus, his divine prerogatives from his human performance. In other words, if our preaching can reflect him rather than merely mimic him, our preaching can honor him. Jesus’s preaching was both self-centered and God-centered, while ours can only be the latter. If we can distinguish between the aspects of his preaching that belong solely to his deity and those characteristics that can still be communicated by earthen vessels, we can learn how to reflect him better when we preach.
Once we take a step back from his person and evaluate his preaching, we understand five key ways in which Jesus preached himself. One could easily find additional ways that Jesus preached himself which we can emulate, but these core issues should mark and define our preaching as they did his.
- Jesus preached about himself decisively
Whenever Jesus preached, he always preached and pushed for a decision. He never concluded a discourse with, “But that’s just what I think. You might feel differently.” He forced a crisis, asked for a verdict, often confronting his audience with only two options—follow or don’t, be wise or be foolish, sell all or turn back, be a sheep or a goat. He made it clear that indecision was impossible because making no decision was actually making the choice to reject him and his message.
- Jesus preached about himself theologically
A growing fault of contemporary preaching is a pervasive belief that people are either incapable of comprehending doctrine or at least uninterested in it. I hear it in conferences; I read it in books; I see it in churches. The last several decades of preaching seem to have shifted from theological content to psychological therapy. The preacher has become less prophet, more cheerleader; the holiness of God has been shunted aside for the happiness of man. Rather than teach our members concepts like justification and sanctification, we preach coping strategies and time management. We have placed man squarely in the center of our religious universe.
By placing himself at the center of his preaching, Jesus packed his preaching with doctrine. He may have preached simply and even to simple people, but never at the expense of theological content. His preaching revealed the person and the character of God as the most significant consideration. When answering questions about divorce, for example, his answer was about God’s intention in marriage rather than about man’s happiness (Matt. 19:3–12). When he taught the disciples how to pray, he trained them to begin their prayer with the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven and to end it with God’s kingdom, power, and glory. He taught his disciples to fear God rather than man, to honor the Lord of the Sabbath more than the tradition of the Sabbath, and to put devotion to God even above keeping the law.
- Jesus preached about himself ethically
I once preached a series of sermons on the family, working through passages of the Bible that teach what a Christian home should be like. Frankly, I had a lot of trouble.
The exegesis of the passages is not what troubled me. After all, I’ve spent years in classrooms and study learning how to handle the technical aspects of the biblical text. I don’t find the homiletical structure to be any more difficult than usual either—that part is always tough. Still, I had a hard time preparing and delivering these sermons because the part of the series that gave me a disconcerting pain is how I fell far short of the standard that I present to my people each week. I often preach with a broken heart, not only because of my love for my people, but because of my realization that I have failed in some key ways and my preaching does not always match my life.
Jesus, on the other hand, never felt conviction about his sermon topic; he never heard Satan whisper in his ear what a phony he was. Jesus never knew any distance between the vast sky of intention and the hard earth of performance. His character was completely consistent with the concepts he proclaimed to others.
- Jesus preached about himself scripturally
Jesus’s preaching was saturated with Scripture. His teaching had the smell of leather scrolls on it. His words dripped with the language of the prophets. He was as comfortable with Moses as he was making a table in his carpenter’s shop. He was as familiar with the Psalms as the streets of Nazareth. He used the Old Testament authoritatively and easily.
Scripture signaled his ministry’s inauguration, both privately and publicly. In the wilderness he rebuked Satan’s temptation with scriptural truth. In the synagogue of Capernaum, he read a messianic prophecy of Isaiah’s, rolled up the scroll, and informed his audience, “Today . . . this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:18–19). In other words, Jesus was saying, “Folks, that’s about me!” In each case, Jesus revealed his identity and authority through the authoritative use of the holy text. His use of Scripture in the Sermon on the Mount showed not only his reverence for Scripture, but also his authority over it.
- Jesus preached about himself passionately
Jesus never preached from a manuscript; he preached from his heart. Whether he was preaching a carefully formed sermon, like the Sermon on the Mount, or giving an impromptu answer to critics, one can still feel the deep feeling and emotion in his words. One couldn’t dispassionately tell an audience they should cut off a hand or pluck out an eye! Standing firmly in the tradition of the prophets who had foretold his coming, Jesus delivered his messages with fervor and feeling.
Jesus was passionate as he wept over Jerusalem and lamented that they had stoned the prophets and now rejected him. He was passionate in his public criticism of the Pharisees. Not only did he invoke passion, he even elicited it. His preaching made people want to throw him off a cliff sometimes, and at others they were simply astonished at his preaching.
No and yes
To the extent that our preaching can mirror these qualities of Jesus’s preaching, we can follow it. To preach decisively, theologically, ethically, scripturally, and passionately is to adopt the aspects of Jesus’s preaching that are normative, that are, in fact, essential to Christian preaching.
But at the center of Jesus’s preaching beats the heart of a self-aware deity, the incarnate Word, the Savior of the world. Ultimately, we must preach him because he preached himself.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition