By Bobby Witherington
There are many books which deal with preaching. Some are excellent. Some are not worth the paper and ink they require. Some are downright dangerous. But there is one book which not only reveals the value of preaching; it also reveals what constitutes genuine, effective, soul-saving preaching. Of course, this “one book” is the Bible – the book of books.
Anyone who desires to preach the gospel would do well to examine the sermon content, the manner, and preaching methods of those great preachers of whom we read in the Scriptures. And one preacher not to be overlooked is the apostle Paul. This peerless apostle, this “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), seemingly had one magnificent obsession – that of converting the entire Roman Empire to Jesus Christ! In order to accomplish this noble objective he was willing to “spend and be spent” (2 Cor. 12:15), suffer intense persecution and deprivation (2 Cor. 11:23-27), and ultimately to even die a martyr’s death (Acts 21:13; 2 Tim. 4:6-8). Few students of either history or the Bible would deny that other than Jesus Christ himself, the apostle Paul was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) preachers that ever lived. There has to be a reason (yea, many reasons) for his effectiveness as a preacher. With a view in mind of encouraging more of us to follow his example, it is our aim in this article to give consideration to the kind of preaching which characterized Paul.
Paul the Christian
Many who acknowledge the greatness of Paul as a preacher tend to place great emphasis upon the fact that he was inspired. That is true. He was. Paul became a child of God in the same way as you and me. He heard and obeyed the gospel. When the Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road it was not to save him, but to make him a “minister and a witness” of the things which he had seen and of the things he had yet to reveal to him (Acts 26:16). To become qualified to be an apostle, as one “born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8), Paul had to see the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1). Being an apostle, he was able to speak that which God “revealed . . . through his Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10). Paul did not learn his message at the feet of the other apostles; rather he received it “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). He was an apostle in every sense of the word, and even his hearers could bear witness to the fact that, through “signs and wonders and mighty deeds,” Paul demonstrated “the signs of an apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12).
But Paul’s effectiveness as a preacher was deeper than the facts of his inspiration and his possessing the signs of an apostle. His real effectiveness stemmed not so much from what he had, but from what he was! It is true that Paul was a very cosmopolitan person. He was “born in Tarsus” (Acts 22:3), a noted seat of philosophy and literature, ranking with Athens and Alexandria. He could speak Greek and Hebrew (Acts 21:37-40), plus other languages not specified (1 Cor. 14:18). He was educated at the feet of the noted Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was a Roman citizen, and he was not adverse to using his citizenship to his advantage and for his protection (Acts 16:21; 22:25). In many ways he was unique. But the underlying secret of Paul’s unflagging determination to preach the gospel (as well as his effectiveness as a preacher) lay in the fact that he was a Christian! (Acts 26:28,29) His conversion was genuine. He never forgot the terrible sins of which he had been guilty (1 Tim. 1:15), but from which he had been forgiven by a gracious Lord. He had been a forceful personality when he was a persecutor of Christians, but now as a genuine Christian he could truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). To “gain Christ” he had suffered the “loss of all things” which were formerly near and dear to him; yet compared to what he found in Christ he counted those things as “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8). 1 fear that too many brethren look first to a person’s apparent ability when that person expresses a desire to preach. Ability is important, but what that person accomplishes in the vineyard of the Lord will be more determined by what he is than by what he has! Many young men (and some not so young) who are “learning to preach ” should first take some lessons on “how to live!” Let us quit putting the cart before the horse.
Paul As a Preacher
Regarding this point it is hard to know where to begin. Paul’s effectiveness lay in many things, such as: He was “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” and he had strong faith in its “power” to save (Rom. 1:16). He believed in the headship and the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22,23; Rom. 10:9). He was willing to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3,10). He strongly believed in prayer and was not embarrassed to ask his brethren to pray “for me” (Eph. 6:19). He worked with others, and trained them to succeed him (cf. his letters to Timothy and Titus). He was “set for the defense of the gospel” (Phil. 1:17). He was determined to magnify Christ in his body, “whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). Anchored by hope (Heb. 6:19), he never lost sight of that “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8) for which he was constantly striving.
As a preacher, Paul was bold, and straight-forward in his speech. At Salamis on the island of Cypress, Paul and Barnabas spoke the word of God to Sergius Paulus the proconsul. However, Elymas the sorcerer withstood them and sought to “turn the proconsul from the faith.” But Paul “looked intently on him and said, ‘0 full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?'” (Acts 13:7-10) Paul doubtlessly had the gift of discernment (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10) and knew the kind of man Elymas was. But the point is, Paul did not mince words. He had the courage to call “a spade a spade.” If Paul were alive today you can be sure he wouldn’t refer to homosexuality and lesbianism simply as “alternate lifestyles!”
As a peacher, Paul endeavored to reason with the people, beginning at some point of common understanding and methodically laying the scriptural foundation which would inescapably bring honest people to a realization of the truth about Jesus Christ. Such was characteristic of his preaching at Antioch in Pisidia where he began by citing known historical facts regarding God’s dealing with the nation of Israel and prophecies with which the people were familiar and which found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the deliverance he made possible (Acts 13:14-40).
As a preacher, Paul rightly “divided the word of truth,” often contrasting the law had the gospel and proving that the law has been superseded by the gospel (Gal. 2:16; 3:16-29; 4:21-31; Col. 2:14-17; etc.). He was not opposed to telling those who were returning to the law that “you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
As a preacher, Paul preached what was needed, when it was needed, to whom it was needed, and where it was needed. To unbelieving Jews who rejected Christ, beginning with their law, Paul preached the truth about the person of Christ. In idolatrous Athens, Paul preached the truth about the one true God and thereby showed the folly of idolatry (Acts 17:16-33). In the presence of the grossly immoral Felix and Drusilla Paul “reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25).
As a preacher, Paul declared “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He was not one to withhold vital truth on any subject for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
As a preacher, Paul was not adverse to calling names. He mentioned Hymenaeus and Alexander whom he “delivered unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). He called the names of Hymenaeus and Philetus who had “strayed concerning the truth” (2 Tim. 2:17,18). He said “Demas has forsaken me” and that “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm” (2 Tim. 4:10,14). He even mentioned the time when Peter was guilty of hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-3).
As a preacher, Paul could get upset when he encountered those who were perverting the gospel. Witness his conduct at Antioch (Acts 15:2). Concerning this incident at Antioch where some false teachers ought to spy out his liberty in Christ, Paul said with regards to these teachers, “to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:5). Indeed, Paul was no compromiser!
As a preacher, Paul was concerned about the purity of the church. He wrote to Corinth where the brethren were tolerating a known fornicator. Mincing no words, Paul charged the brethren to “deliver such a one unto Satan,” declaring “that a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:5,6).
As a preacher, Paul was humble. He referred to himself as the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). On another occasion he referred to himself as “less than the least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8). He preached “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2); he did not elevate himself.
As a preacher, Paul preached when the brethren supported him (Phil. 4:15,16) and when they did not. He was willing to labor “night and day,” not being a burden to any, in his effort to preach “the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). He was not one to say, “I can’t preach because I have no support.” He taught that brethren ought to support men who preach (1 Cor. 9), but this was not a factor in determining whether or not he would preach!
As a preacher, Paul was no quitter. Though his labors had been abundant and with great success, Paul could say, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:13,14).
As a preacher, Paul was constantly in trouble. In trouble with false brethren, false teachers, and the civil authorities. He was beaten, maligned, persecuted, and imprisoned. It was not uncommon for him to be run out of town. He ultimately died a martyr’s death. But Paul got into trouble because he preached the truth that troubled people in sin. It is probable that very few churches of Christ today would tolerate a preacher like Paul! But O how we need a bunch of Pauls! Especially in this age of Peales and Schullers when brethren have gone pig-crazy and hog-wild over the sickly, sentimental, sweet-spirited, feel-good-about-yourself slop these men are feeding hell-bound sinners!
Yet as a preacher Paul was tactful. it was not uncommon for him to begin a letter by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God your Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It was customary for him to first compliment people for the good things they did before he reprimanded them for the bad things they did. The truth he preached often offended people, but he didn’t try to be offensive as a person.
Finally, as a preacher Paul was a happy man. For proof, read Philippians. Happy, though in prison! Happy because he was fruitfully working in a cause larger than himself. Happy because he was constantly reaching out to others. Happy because he served God, enjoyed peace of mind, had no fear of death, and had a joyful anticipation of receiving that crown of righteousness.
Preachers, perhaps it is time that many of us paused long enough to take a long hard look at ourselves! Are we drifting with the tide? Have we lost our spiritual nerve? Are we really “telling it like it is”? Have we exchanged idealism for realism? Have we become so secure in our comfortable “positions” that we are afraid to “rock the boat”? Just how well do we measure up when we are placed alongside the apostle Paul? May God give us the humility to inventory ourselves, the integrity to admit our failings, and the courage to make the needed changes.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 3, pp. 80-82
February 6, 1992