Proclaiming the Word (Bible Study)
This Bible study lesson explores how to proclaim the Word of God.
Lesson 5 See all lessons
Scripture: Romans 10:14-18 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5
In Nehemiah 8 we are given an interesting and helpful picture of what happened in Jerusalem when the Exiles returned from captivity and rebuilt the city. The Book of the Law of Moses was brought out, Ezra read it aloud before the people, and the Levites instructed the people "…making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:8). (See the Bible study lesson on "Worship as Listening and Responding."
In the New Testament we are given more complete information about how God designs to use the reading and preaching of his Word. Paul, who was a preacher, knew there was a God-designed process. In verses 14-18 he lays out the steps of that process before the Roman Christians.
- Someone is sent by God to preach the Word.
- When the preacher preaches, people hear and believe.
- When they believe, they call on the name of the Lord and are saved. (See Romans 10:14-15)
So "faith comes from hearing the message," he says (v.17). No wonder he speaks about the "beautiful feet" of those who bring the good news (v.15), a reference to Isaiah 52:7! The concept of "beautiful feet" in Scripture is a historic reference to the delight with which the exiles received the good news from messengers who told them they were about to be delivered from captivity and restored to Jerusalem.
In such a spirit, Paul provides the urgent charge to Timothy that he "preach the Word" (see 2 Timothy 4:1). This charge carries extra weight because of the accompanying references to "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead" and also "in view of his appearing and his kingdom" (v.1). This is not a charge to be taken lightly! It is the God-designed means to bring people to faith that they may be saved. Paul adds other references that help us to understand the intensity and urgency with which he expects this proclamation be done. "Be prepared in season and out of season…with great patience and careful instruction" (v.2) adds great weight to what he has said about preaching. And when he adds "…correct, rebuke and encourage…" (v.2), he points to the purposes for which preaching is done. Also, as if to underscore the urgency and importance of this charge, he warns Timothy that the task will not be easy and will likely encounter both disinterest and resistance (see vss. 3-5).
Much more can be said about preaching and how to do it, but this is not the place. Many books, articles and journals will encourage and instruct those who preach.
The Big Picture of Dialog with God
Having listened to Paul's urgent charge to Timothy, we should remind ourselves of the nature of Christian worship, where such preaching is done. In previous lessons we have defined worship as a meeting between God and his people where they engage in conversation together (see lessons 3, 4, and 9). In some elements of the worship service, God is speaking to his people through his Word; in other elements of the worship service, God's people are speaking to him through their prayers, confessions, praise, etc.
A very essential element in this process is the work of the Holy Spirit. Neither the speaker nor the listener would be able to carry out their tasks well without the work of God's Spirit. Just as faithful proclamation requires the guidance and filling of God's Spirit, so discerning listening and responding require the same Spirit. The "things of God" are only understood and discerned "by the Spirit of God" (see 1 Corinthians 2:11-16). This requires a dependence on the Spirit of God by both those who proclaim and those who listen. The Prayer for Illumination in worship is a key expression of this dependence.
The underlying conviction is that God is a speaker. God is not merely a passive impersonal deity who receives obeisance from us. God speaks. And we listen. The most important way in which God speaks to us is through the Word, read and proclaimed. The preacher, therefore, has a formidable and holy task as she/he becomes "God's speaker." At the same time the worshipers have a significant and holy task to listen to the voice of God. In this understanding of worship, both speaking and listening are elevated to a high level of importance.
The Integration of Word and Liturgy
While it may seem that preaching and the liturgy are two quite separate entities, such is not the case. They are and must be intimately integrated with each other. The proclamation of God's Word occurs within a worship service, that is, it is part of the overall conversation between God and his children. We say that preaching is the primary means of grace, but it needs to be surrounded by a thoughtful liturgy. Both will be more meaningful when each influences the other. To make a separation between liturgy and preaching ("preliminaries" and "sermon") is to divide what should not be divided, thereby making both weaker.
Therefore, those who plan the worship service ought to be fully aware of what Scripture will be read and preached, what themes will be pursued, and what outcome or end is in view. Only the preacher can know whether the service should end with confession, gratitude, a call to obedience, encouragement to trust, a challenge to service, or the like. The preacher should, therefore, be a part of the process of planning or, at the very least, provide full and clear information for the worship planners.
There are several ways in which the preaching and liturgy are to be integrated:
- The theme of the entire liturgy is set by the Word that is read and preached. Because of the primacy of the Word of God in worship, the theme of the scripture reading and sermon ought to shape the focus of the liturgy that will surround it.
- The liturgy prepares for and anticipates the message of the sermon. The mind and heart of worshipers will be drawn along in this conversation with God in a spirit that will prepare them to receive God's Word.
- The liturgy can reinforce the message of the Word that is preached. Songs, anthems, and litanies are able to proclaim and reaffirm what is preached.
- The liturgy enables the worshipers to respond to the Word preached. God's Word is never given only for good interest or casual information, but for obedience and response. Although some of our greatest response is shown in our daily living, the worshiping congregation should also respond corporately through song, prayer, or profession.
An integrated worship service with an obvious common theme, in which proclamation and liturgy serve as partners together, will be a vital and vitalizing conversation between God and his children.
Tips for Discussion Leaders
Depending on the setting in your congregation, it could be easy for this lesson to become a time to engage in critiquing the work of the preacher. We caution you against that, and it may even be wise to state this clearly to the group at the outset. Such evaluation is, of course, usually a good thing, but it should be done in another setting which includes those who are responsible for supervising the work of the preacher. (It should be done charitably with full understanding with the preacher!) Instead, your aim in this lesson is to stimulate the worship life of your congregation by working collaboratively so that both the preached Word and the liturgy have maximum effect.
You should remind the group of (1) the central importance of the preached Word in worship, (2) how the preached Word is to shape the liturgy, and (3) how the liturgy can reinforce and strengthen the Word preached. You will need to carefully monitor the discussion to keep it on this track.
1. As a group spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas that you think should be included in a good definition of preaching. Write them down.
2. Review recent worship services and ask these questions:
- How did the theme of preaching shape the liturgy?
- How did the liturgy elements prepare the way for the preached Word?
- How did the concluding elements of the liturgy reinforce the theme of the preached Word?
3. What opportunities do your worship services provide to respond to the preached Word? Are these opportunities sufficient? What other suggestions do you have?
4. How can the worship committee/planners and your congregation assist and encourage your preacher in his/her task?
5. Does your congregation have services of worship on occasion where the Word is not preached or taught? How do you assess that?
Faculty Statement on the Nature of Excellence in Preaching. This statement comes from the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary and is posted on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website.