By Art Katz
The first statement of the anointed ministry of Jesus took place in a synagogue, in the reading of a portion of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He anointed Me to preach.” There is a connection between anointing and true preaching. The preached or proclaimed word has a particular quality that distinguishes it from any other kind of speaking or oratory. True preaching is a remarkable phenomenon, even a matter of life and death because:
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?
Preaching, by one who is sent, is at the heart of the mission calling of the church to the unbelieving world. Those whom God sends are given the Spirit without measure. This sending is therefore critical, for which reason God establishes local fellowships of believers—we have to be sent from somewhere.
Preaching the word of God is much more than bringing a word that is biblically correct; it is more than the correct formulation of the doctrines of God. The word of God is a divine communication of a uniquely powerful kind, all the more remarkable in that God intends it to be expressed through a human vessel. Therefore, we need a deep appreciation for the holy sacrament of preaching. Paul’s own acute awareness of the phenomenon is revealed in his first epistle to the Thessalonians:
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
We need to read this as a literal and accurate description of a particular mode of speaking that is rare in our own time. If what makes this communication distinctive is its power to perform a work, what then is its character? Believers, and particularly ministers, are forever seeking to establish their reputations and their acceptance on some basis other than the preached word. There are many who make careers out of their ability to speak. They have a facility with words and a corresponding gift to communicate them. If one is attractive, winsome with an audience, one can go far in the religious world. However, true preaching bypasses all natural talents; it is altogether a divine and supernatural phenomenon. It is the word of life. It quickens the dead. It sets in motion things that have a myriad of consequences. It is a word that is sent.
Ironically, this kind of speaking has to find expression through the mouth of an earthen vessel rather than directly from God Himself. Though the word comes out of the mouth of a human vessel, its origin is divine and heavenly. The speaker participates in the process; the Lord employs the man’s personality, his accent, his disposition and his heart. It is the bringing together of an overwhelming contradiction, and where this phenomenon is at work, it is nothing less than an excruciating suffering for the one who is speaking. Every time he speaks, it is the same trembling, the same uncertainty, and the same deep sense of the patent impossibility of the task.
Preaching is a struggle, an ultimate challenge every time it is undertaken. We can make many good biblical statements, but that is not the same as communicating the word as God’s word. The first communicates mere biblical knowledge, but the latter has the power to constitute an “event” for the hearers. My own observation is that more than ninety-five percent of all Christian preaching and teaching is speaking about God, or making biblical statements that are interesting and insightful, but which do not constitute the expression of the word as God’s word. It is not true preaching, and the evidence is that the hearers remain unchanged. They are not going from faith to faith, or from glory to glory, because the “event” of preaching has not been put before them.
The whole church needs to have a higher standard set before it than what it presently understands about preaching. We dare not come up to the platform, open the Bible, clear our throats, call the congregation to attention, say a prayer, open our mouths and commence, without a terrible sense of foreboding of the great weight that falls upon that moment. If it is not the word of God, there will be a form of death going forth, instead of life. There is no neutrality in the kingdom. Either the word is going to enliven, or it will bring numbness and dullness in the hearing of it.
The Word of the Cross
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
The word of the cross is the power of God; it contains an inherent, divinely penetrating ability to register divine truths despite the severest religious, cultural and ethnic resistance; it has an ability to create faith in the hearers, causing them to believe unto salvation. It performs a work in them that believe, or a work that brings one to the place of believing. It is a heavenly word proclaimed in the earth, not only to those who may be willing hearers, but also, and just as much, to those who are resistant hearers. Earth resists heaven, and every power of darkness wants to cloud the minds of men and keep them from understanding and responding. Therefore, a word of an ultimate kind is needed, like a hammer on a rock, to break that resistance.
The word of the cross does not mean that the cross itself is necessarily the subject matter. The substance of the crucifixion event, replicated in the humiliation of the preaching, is the re-enactment of the cross-experience itself. Every time the cross is re-enacted in any humiliation that comes from an act of obedience, the power that was demonstrated at the cross is again given opportunity to be expressed.
The reason we see so little of the power of God in preaching is that men take pains to avoid the humiliation of the cross, preferring to play it safe with man-deferring sermons. There is an unwillingness to take the risk of failure and to trust God for the word in that moment. There is a genuine place for sermon preparation, but in the preaching event itself, room must be made for God. If we insulate ourselves from God by our own religious, human and professional preparation, we void the cross and the foolishness of it, namely, the suffering and the humiliation, and therefore rob the cross of its power. No matter what might be a man’s natural qualifications and strengths, he must, in that tremulous moment, be in weakness and much trembling.
A preacher, who intentionally empties himself in the dying to his own ability to speak, trusting rather for the word of God to be given, will experience a measure of suffering akin to that of the crucified Christ. He becomes foolish in a humiliation unto death. This is at the heart of all true speaking. The man speaking sees to it that his own ability will not be his dependency or source of supply. God does not want the faith of men to be established on human eloquence, but only on the basis of the power of God.
The preaching that is the power of God comes when a man abandons himself, when he refuses to lean on his own expertise, his own savvy, or his gift of the gab. Pulling out that plug is the death. It is something one can never get used to, but is to be tasted again and again. Every occasion is as terrifying and mortifying as if you had never done it before. It is a recurring experience in death. Who is willing to taste those kinds of deaths? Who is willing to abandon his own proven and trusted ability and confidence, and trust that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead will now raise the speaker and his message?
The issue is the issue of the cross, and the word of God will not come to men with full conviction, except through the lips of those who know the cross in their own experience, and are willing to suffer the humiliation of it again and again in the very foolishness of their speaking. If our speaking is not foolishness, then it is not a true speaking. It may amuse men, it may even inform them, but it will never be an event.
To preach truly is not the issue of skill or learned technique, but a divine mystery. The very word “preaching” is derived from the Latin word praedikare, which means “to make known.” Whenever Christ’s humiliation is explicated in the foolishness of preaching, He is again revealed and set forth to be the Savior. For just as God gives grace to the humble, so does He, who is full of grace and truth, have opportunity to intersect time and eternity, heaven and earth, in the moment of authentic meekness when a preacher ceases from himself.
A familiar illustration of this cruciform life is to be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he writes:
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
For all of Paul’s erudition and religious knowledge, this kind of self-imposed limitation required a painful determination. The trouble is that we know so much, and so much that we know wants to find expression. Therefore, it requires a determination to put away what is so accessible and available to our preaching.
God will not give His glory to another, except when it is exclusively Himself being expressed by the preacher. How many of us are willing to live on that razor’s edge? How many of us are not so much concerned with the glory of God as we are in seeking to avoid the embarrassment of failure? That is why we have so little resurrection-event in our weekly pulpit preaching. That is why safe, conventional preaching can never be an event in God. As someone has said, and I believe it out of my own experience, “Every true preaching is a raising again of the dead.” We need to have an enhanced appreciation for what resurrection means as a God-event in the spoken word. We will never be a mouthpiece for God if we are trying to preserve our reputation, or if we are afraid ourselves to experience death.
The man who loves to talk, who loves to be public, who enjoys being seen and heard, will never speak the word of event. The man who sighs and groans when he gets up to the pulpit, and would rather that the floor open up and swallow him, who does not want to be there, who feels terribly uncomfortable, and who knows that he is not going to be understood, is the man out of whose mouth the word of true preaching is most likely to come. Like Jonah, who wanted to escape the call of God, the man who does not want to preach is the only one qualified to preach.
With so many of God’s people content with mere scriptural or doctrinal correctness, it is urgent to elevate the church’s level of regard and expectation for the word as a creative event, producing change and establishing faith in the hearer, a word beyond what is merely informational. It is the word that is the event, not the stylistic presentation.
Where that creative word is not expressed, the sermon stands in jeopardy of becoming mere ceremony, a piece of familiar and unchallenging predictability, requiring nothing from its hearers and making no demand. It may fill the space that has been allocated for it, but there is no glory in the church; we have only been sermonized. To that measure, we are incapacitated as God’s witnesses in the world, and constitute only a sleepy, Sunday religious culture that the world can well afford to ignore.
How out of tune our contemporary preaching is to the whole tenor of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Evidently, to preach the word was to be particular, pointed and uncompromising in confronting the brethren on the condition of their lives and the necessity for change.
In our age, degrees and credentials from institutions carry
more weight than being authentically and apostolically charged for the call of
ministry. This is only a symptom of the yet larger sickness, namely, the
substitution of the glory of God in the church for a man-pleasing ethos.
That is why we have such shallow teaching and preaching. God is not giving His
authority and depth to men who would use and usurp it for their own ends, for
their own names and for their religious success.
For nearly forty years before his death in 2007, Art Katz was a prophetic voice crying out from the wilderness for radical revolution and reformation in the mission and methods of the church as well as the lives of believers. Born of Jewish parents in 1929 and reared during the austerity of the Great Depression and turbulence of the World War II eras, his life-philosophy was shaped by two diverse educational sources—the merchant marines and a liberal university academia in a time when such ideological heterodoxies of Marxism and Existentialism were vogue and prevalent among rogue intellectuals. These strong influences produced in Katz vehement atheism, staunch anti-Christianism, and a strident intellectual elitism he sought to propagate through the aegis of the public education system. When, as a high school teacher, he realized his reservoir of knowledge was woefully inadequate to provide cogent answers concerning the issues of life and the perplexities of history to inquiring students, he took a leave of absence to embark on a hitch-hiking odyssey through Europe and the Middle East in quest of the intellectual knowledge and sagacity of the “master sages” of antiquity in their native lands. His journey culminated significantly and symbolically in the city of Jerusalem, where he had a Damascus Road-like life-transforming personal encounter with the true Master Sage and Messiah, Jesus Christ! For the next four decades, Art Katz’s life and ministry were reflective of a true prophet and forerunner who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord into the hearts and lives of those he touched in this nation and nations around the globe. Many of his writings and audio sermons are available on his website at: http://artkatzministries.org.
This article is an excerpt of Apostolic Foundations by Art Katz. Click on the cover graphic below to download the Kindle edition.
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