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The purpose of Christian preaching

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Timothy 1:1-7

Some years ago in Brisbane, I shared a taxi with an Indian businessman. As the car pulled away from the kerb we introduced ourselves, and I said I was a pastor. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, unfamiliar with the term.

Searching for a synonym, I said, “I’m a minister of religion.”

“Ahh,” he replied. “You deliver discourses!”

He was right! Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a “religion of the book,” and that means information, and interpretation, and instruction.

Preaching sermons is not all that pastors do, and it’s not only pastors who are called and gifted to preach and teach the Bible. But preaching is one of the essential marks of a healthy church, and a church without regular Bible-based preaching won’t be healthy for long.

In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul reminds the young church leader Timothy of the nature and purpose of Scripture. He says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The Bible has an intrinsic authority as God’s word written. It is powerful, and reliable and trustworthy. At the same time, it is challenging, subversive and dangerous. It is useful, constructive and transformative.

When we let the Bible loose to do its work, explained and applied where necessary by godly preachers and teachers, we are equipped to be what God made us for: agents of God, sharing the word of life, doing good work, bringing positive change to persons and communities, contributing to the common good.

But what is the purpose of preaching? I believe the purpose of preaching is to convey essential information about Christian beliefs and practices, and to encourage spiritual growth and maturity, and to inspire missional action.

I also believe the purpose of preaching is to kindle and rekindle love in our hearts and minds, and then direct the flames of that love to where they are most needed – warming a cold heart, softening a hard heart, comforting the broken, guiding the lost, inspiring good work, helping a fellow beggar to find bread.

There is a time for rebuking and correcting, just as there is a time for praising and encouraging, but let everything be done with the goal of love. That is what Paul emphasises right at the start of his first letter to Timothy.

Paul wrote many letters, but only four of those we have are addressed to individuals (Philemon, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). The latter three are known as “pastoral letters,” offering practical “encouragement and advice on the day-to-day life of a local church and the role of the chief pastor within it.”[1]

These three letters also “give us glimpses of a rich theological picture of Jesus, and of the power of the gospel.”[2]

Together they are like a teaching manual, providing guidance about the kind of teaching that Christian leaders should (and should not) be giving to their congregations, or Bible study groups, or Sunday school classes.

Who was Timothy? He was a young man, a second-generation Christian, shy and suffering from a recurrent gastric problem. He was also a gifted and godly leader of the churches in and around Ephesus, located in modern-day western Turkey.

Paul is on his way to Ephesus, and has heard of trouble brewing there, but he might be delayed, so he writes the letter we call 1 Timothy so that Timothy will know how to lead well and with appropriate confidence.

Timothy will need to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (vv. 3-4).

We don’t know precisely what these men were teaching, but it may have been deceptive speculation about aspects of Israel’s early history, masquerading as authoritative teaching and justifying inappropriate behaviour.

Whatever it was, the strange teaching has the capacity to create controversy, confusion, dissention and distraction from gospel priorities.

Timothy’s task is to put an end to this false teaching, but to do so in a way that demonstrates love (v. 5a), and by implication a willingness to be reconciled and reunited so that God’s word may bear fruit and God’s work may flourish.

Love, in this context, is no mere intellectual decision to think well of someone, no switch that I can flick on or off depending on the situation. Neither is it merely an emotional response to conflict, deployed to disarm opponents and penetrate their defences.

This love is a settled disposition, an uncommon but attractive godliness that, in its full form, is fuelled by steady devotion to the will of God, modelled on the example of Jesus, and bearing evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).

As Philip H. Towner notes, such love (agape) is “shorthand for the entire visible, outward life produced by genuine faith (e.g. Gal 5:7) … active response to God’s grace, expressed in sacrificial action done on behalf of others.”[3]

Paul tells us the source of this love is a beautiful interplay of three spiritual qualities: “a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (v. 5b).

These qualities are available to everyone, and are developed day by day over a lifetime through maintaining a close relationship with Jesus, pursuit of spiritual disciplines, and an active involvement in the life of a healthy local church.

To have a “sincere faith” is to regard our core beliefs (about God, and what God has said and done, and how we should respond to God and to others) with the authenticity and trustworthiness and confidence they deserve.

One of the best ways to grow a sincere faith is to read your Bible and listen to good preaching, expecting God to speak, asking God to help you understand and apply what you read and hear, eager to deepen your faith, renew your mind, and make the changes of heart, mind, will and actions that will strengthen the vitality and confidence of your faith.

A “good conscience” is that aspect of your mind that applies sound teaching, or wisdom from experience, to your moral actions. A good conscience is naturally drawn to excellence, wholesomeness, and truth.

To grow a good conscience, choose carefully what you watch and listen to and read, and whom you accept as a friend. Know your moral bearings, and ensure that your moral compass keeps pointing north. Take care to do whatever is necessary to grow in grace and godliness.

A “pure heart” refers to the inner dimension of Christian experience – not the public you, nor the private you, but the secret you. A pure heart is a gift from God (2 Tim 2:22; Eph 5:26). It is precious, beautiful and all too rare today.

But there are ways in which each of us can cultivate a pure heart. Stay fresh and clean. Filter out the mud that so easily attaches itself to you through your actions and interactions in the world, not least through social media. Invest quality time with people you sense are pure in heart. Refuse to conform to the world’s mould. Transcend your ego. Resist the devil.

This advice about the primacy and source of love is not for Timothy alone. The letter is intended to be read aloud to the gathered church at Ephesus, and re-read until it produces transformative change in individual and community life. And it is for us too. Paul wants everyone who identifies as a Christian to

allow the gospel to transform the whole of their lives, so that the outward signs of the faith express a living reality that comes from the deepest parts … [and to] know how to build up the community in mutual love and support, rather than, by the wrong sort of teaching or behaviour, tearing it apart.[4]

That is why love must be the goal of corrective preaching and teaching, and indeed of all preaching. As Paul says elsewhere, “If I have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).

Listen to this simple poem by Joseph Bayly:

Lord of the compost heap
you take garbage
and turn it into
soil good soil
for seeds to root
and grow
with wildest increase
flowers to bloom
with brilliant beauty.

Take all the garbage
of my life
Lord of the compost heap
turn it into
soil good soil
and then plant seeds
to bring forth
fruit and beauty
in profusion.[5]

That is why Paul began his pastoral letter to Timothy with a command to silence some of Timothy’s colleagues. That is why so much time and effort is invested in the New Testament, and in the church through the past 2,000 years, to model and encourage effective preaching.

And that is why pastors like me deliver discourses.

For I am confident that preaching that honours God, and points to Jesus, and relies on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, cannot fail to bring renewal and transformation to individuals, communities and the whole world.

And I am also confident that a sincere and trustworthy faith, coupled with a good conscience and a pure heart, has the power to cultivate genuine transformative Christian love, and such love bears good fruit, and that fruit brings glory to God.


Sermon 625 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Inaugural sermon preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 12 July 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK, 2003), p. x.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 114, 115.

[4] Wright, op. cit., p. 6.

[5] Joseph Bayly, Psalms of My Life (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing, 2000).

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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