What does it mean to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV)? Preaching the Word means that the message of the text of God’s Word is also the message of the sermon. The text of Scripture is primary; its message (not the preacher’s) is central.
Simply put, if the message of a sermon is not the message of Scripture, it may be called “preaching” (however loosely defined) but it is not truly preaching the Word.
Preaching the Word of God takes more than merely including or quoting Scripture in the sermon (although that is at least a good start). In his book, The Pastor’s Justification, Jared C. Wilson writes,
Putting some Scriptures in your sermon is not the same thing as preaching the Scriptures. (p.119)
Preaching one’s own ideas from behind the pulpit and sprinkling in a verse or two of Scripture is not unlike using the Bible as nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. Sad to say, this is what false teachers have always done. Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus that they needed to be on the lookout for savage wolves who would be “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
Indeed, Satan himself twisted the words of God back in the garden of Eden when he tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-5). He also quoted Scripture this way when he sought to tempt the Lord Jesus Christ out in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). He quoted the actual words, but twisted their meaning and implications.
So what does this mean for us in the church today? If you are a minister of the Word of God, make sure that you are not using the Word of God like a wax nose or a ventriloquist’s dummy – presenting your own ideas as if they came from Scripture. And do the hard, painstaking, time-consuming work of translating, interpreting, and faithfully proclaiming the message of Scripture. The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it this way:
Q. 159. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto? A. They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.
And for the listeners? How are you listen to the preaching of the Word of God? The next question in the Larger Catechism addresses that very topic:
Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.
And you thought that the preacher was supposed to be the one doing all of the work during the sermon – far from it! How are you to ensure that your pastor is not practicing homiletical ventriloquism? By attending on his preaching of the Word with diligence, preparation and prayer; by examining what you hear by the Scriptures themselves.
Do you bring your Bible to church? Do you pay attention to the sermon? Do you follow along and take notes? We really should listen like the Bereans did in Acts 17. There they were called “noble” (v.11). Why? Because they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” They were hungry for the Word of God, and examined whatever they heard by the Scriptures!
If we were all to do that, there would be far less homiletical ventriloquism and far more true and faithful preaching of the Word of God!