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Him We Proclaim:  Defending Apostolic Homiletics (Part 1)

October 19, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

In this venue it would be beside the point to attempt an academic defense of the apostles’ interpretive methods against the critiques of historical-critical scholars who demonstrate a presuppositional bias against the Scriptures’ claim to be the word of God written. In the disciplines of biblical studies, others—including, in a noteworthy way, your own Dr. Beale—have ably responded to those assaults on the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old.
Here I am talking to preachers and preachers-in-preparation, assuming that you bow before the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, which must control not only the “what” of our preaching, but also the “how” of our preaching. So I offer just three arguments for reading and preaching the Bible like Peter and Paul—but arguments that to my mind are decisive:

1. Because Christ is the overarching theme of apostolic preaching, he must be the overarching theme of our preaching.

Paul’s discussions of his own apostolic mission and ministry priorities provide an inspired “pastoral theology” that directs our service as preachers. As we heard in Colossians 1:28, Paul sums up his preaching ministry in a sentence that is rich and brim-full of meaning: “Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Paul proclaims Christ because at Christ’s glorious return Paul wants to present people perfect in Christ.

Often in his epistles Paul replaced terms that describe the message—“gospel” or “word of God”—with the personal name of Christ. In 1 Corinthians Paul contrasted his message to the motifs of power that his Jewish hearers preferred and of wisdom that suited Greek tastes:

1 Cor. 1:23-24 – … we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Cor. 1:29-31 – No human being may boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Cor. 2:2 – I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

We hear the same Christ-centered priority in the opening and the closing of Romans, the magisterial epistle by which Paul introduced his apostolic calling and his gospel to the thriving church in the imperial capital. In the opening (Rom. 1:1-6) he speaks of his call to proclaim “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son … Jesus Christ our Lord.” His closing doxology (16:25-27) speaks of “… my gospel and the preaching [about] Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations…."

Later, writing to the church at Philippi, Paul reported that his captivity had emboldened others to “speak the word” (Phil. 1:14). Then he granted that some “preach Christ” (notice that!) from motives of envy and competition, assuming that their success will frustrate the apostle (1:15). Though their motives were poor, their message was true, for Paul again mentions that they “proclaim Christ” (1:17) and affirms that he rejoices when “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed” (1:18).

To the church at Ephesus, Paul describes his privilege as a herald appointed by the living God, “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…. (Eph. 3:8-10). In fact, for Paul “Christ” sums up not only the message that reconciles Jews and Gentiles to their Creator, but also the pattern of Christian living that flows from faith in response to grace.

In Ephesians 4 he has made his typical transition from indicative to imperative, from unfolding the gospel to profiling the changes that need to occur in believers’ daily lives and relationships. In Eph. 4:18-19 he reminds the Ephesian believers of their sordid past in pagan sensuality. But he turns the corner at 4:20:

Eph. 4:20-21 – But that is not the way you learned Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, that you have put off the old man, corrupted through desires of deceit, and are being renewed, having put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Under this rubric, Paul goes on to say that “truth in Jesus”—our break with the old man Adam and union with the new man Christ—must be expressed in “taking off” lies and telling the truth, “taking off” theft and working to share, “taking off” corrosive speech and speaking gracious words that build others.

So Paul was no stranger to the pressure to “expand” his sermonic repertoire, to include other themes besides Christ in order to deal more adequately with human problems—just as we today face pressures to deliver a message aligned to the spirit of the age. Judaizers at Galatia were sure that Paul’s gospel of Christ’s cross needed to be supplemented by a healthy dose of law, if unwashed pagans were ever to put defiling ways behind them. Intellectual sophisticates at Corinth were embarrassed by Paul’s fixation on Christ and him crucified—too weak for those who wanted political action and influence, too foolish for the intelligentsia whose appetites preferred an elegant answer to humanity’s quandaries. Mystics at Colosse sought to move beyond the physical realities of incarnation and a public execution, craving visionary experience that moved them into the “in crowd,” the illuminati.

But Paul’s message stayed the same—“Him we proclaim”—because, as he says a few sentences later to the Colossians, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3).

Second argument next Wednesday!