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What's Happening when the Pastor is Preaching?

Every single week, 52 weeks per year (and more if you include Sunday nights and Wednesday nights), Pastors rise to speak the Word of God to their congregations. What's happening when he does this? Is it just one more normal moment in the span or our week, or is there something more going on? Is something sacred occurring?

  • Let's think about...

Preaching is a difficult topic to precisely define and fully capture in one sentence or statement. Such is the contention of Karl Barth who wrote that “one cannot answer the question of preaching in a single statement. The answer lies beyond what can be said in a single answer.”[1] Preaching is as simple as it is complex. Preaching is simple in the sense that, as Kevin Vanhoozer contends, “preaching is speaking into the air.”[2] Preaching is a man speaking. And yet, preaching, as is seen in the Old and New Testaments, is entirely layered and complex. The New Testament, while speaking often of preaching, primarily[3] uses three verbs to identity and describe preaching.[4] The three words that most dominate the New Testament preaching landscape, cumulatively used one hundred thirty–one times, demonstrate that preaching is nuanced and specific. Preaching has meaning, it has a biblical shape and form, and it has a purpose and function. It is, an Vanhoozer says, “speaking into the air,” but it is also speaking something specific into the air before a group of people all the while realizing that something supernatural is occurring.


Preaching, for the purposes of this article, will be defined as the exposition and proclamation of the Word of God in its redemptive and historical context, empowered by the Holy Spirit, applied to the lives of a modern audience, effecting an encounter between God and man. Preaching is that act whereby the God of heaven speaks his word through his authorized undershepherds, causing his voice to be heard in the church, rightly understood, and properly applied.

Three categories of thought will provide a structure for us to build a theology of preaching and will serve as our outline. They are: God has spoken in his word, God is speaking in preaching, and God is being heard in the Church.


God has Spoken: The Word


That God has spoken in the past is the necessary and essential starting point for any proper and satisfactory theology of preaching. This truth explains the first part of the definition given above, that preaching is “the exposition and proclamation of the Word of God in its redemptive and historical context.” The word of God has authority, meaning, and context, and preaching must begin its work by rightly handling the text of Scripture as it has been given by God. Peter Adam agrees writing that “God has spoken…his words remain powerful, and…without this historic revelation of God in words there can be no ministry of the Word.”[5] The word of God, preserved forever as holy scripture, is the foundation stone for both understanding and practicing preaching. Again, Adam writes that “what we have in the Scripture is the revealed and preserved words of God.”[6] 

The validity of preaching rests on the fact that God has spoken; and while the forms of God’s revelation have been several throughout redemptive history,[7] the most fully confirmed[8] revelation of God is the prophetic word of Scripture. Theologian J.I. Packer calls the Bible Christ’s means of lordship in the lives of his people writing “scripture now functions precisely as the instrument of Christ’s lordship over his followers.”[9] A full definition and description of the Bible is difficult to express in condensed format,[10] but stated concisely, the Bible is the Holy Spirit–inspired, inerrant, infallible, clear, and sufficient word of God. As the Apostle Peter writes,

We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt 1:19–21).


The Apostle Paul establishes the scriptural foundation for preaching stating “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). This idea, no doubt undergirds his instruction to Timothy when he writes, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Tim 4:13–16).


In Titus, Paul notes that elders “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). These three texts, among others,[11] demonstrate that the teaching ministry of the pastor flows out of a settled doctrine of the Scripture as the revealed word of God. God has spoken. And because God has spoken in his word, and because his word is fixed and unchanging for all time, the pastor confidently preaches from that word, preaching that word itself. God’s word is the foundation and content of all true preaching.


God is Speaking: The Preacher and His Preaching


God has spoken in his word, but he is also still speaking. This is fundamental to the understanding of the pastor as he enters the pulpit, opens his Bible, and after praying,[12] begins to deliver his sermon. Gustaf Wingren writes that “the Bible itself preaches. He who preaches reproduces its own content.”[13] Preaching is not performance art, nor is it the selling of ideas in hopes of gaining crowd approval.[14] On the contrary, preaching is declamatory; it is the authoritative proclamation or declaring of who God is, what God has said, and what God is now saying. A right theology of the word will lead the preacher to understand that even as God’s word is fixed as past revelation,[15] and his duty is to that fixed word, that word is active and alive by the power of the Holy Spirit,[16] and thus he preaches that word to the people of God.

The first consideration of the active nature of preaching demands that the preacher be qualified for the task. In light of the nature of God’s word and the authority it claims for itself, it is only right that the preacher, before he assumes the pulpit, is himself considered and evaluated in the scripture’s light. In his letters to Pastors Timothy and Titus, Paul provides two complementary lists of qualifications that a man must meet before he is permitted to the elder’s chair.

In 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul writes, "The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil."


And in Titus 1:5–9, the Apostle says, "This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick–tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self–controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."

Certainly, much can be said both for and about these two lists, but for this paper the author wishes to call attention to the driving focus of each list, which is the man’s moral standing before God and others. Before a man is permitted to preach, the Church is commanded to inspect and scrutinize his life. Not for perfection, but for consistent and honest righteousness. Preaching is that act whereby a man rises from among his congregation[17] and actively speaks the words of God to his hearers in such a way that those who are hearing him are hearing God’s word[18] afresh and alive in that moment. Preaching must be guarded.

Seeing to it that the man is qualified for the elder’s chair, the Church commissions him through ordination, setting him free to shepherd them, and deputizing him for oversight[19] through the regular preaching of the word of God.[20] Preaching is shepherding, and it is one of the primary ways the pastor cares for and shepherds his people. In 1 Peter 5:1–3, Peter exhorts his and fellow elders in this way saying, "I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock." 


Preaching is that act of shepherding through the which the pastor leads and guides his people into the pastures of God’s grace and beside the still waters of God’s own mercies.[21] Preaching is that act through which the preacher stands guard over his flock, watching for fierce predators who seek do harm.[22] Preaching is where the pastor, knowing his flock,[23] brings them the eternal and fixed word of God in ways that allow it to be heard now, active and alive. And if the pastor is to do this—if he is to present the fixed word in fresh ways—he must do so by handling the Bible as God has given it, the best method being expositional preaching. Expositional preaching may be defined as “the process of laying open the biblical text in such a way that the Holy Spirit’s intended meaning and accompanying power are brought to bear on the lives of contemporary listeners.”[24] While many forms and styles of preaching have been practiced throughout church history, expositional preaching remains the most faithful style and approach given the historical authenticity of the Bible and the models provided for the Church in Scripture.[25] “This systematic approach, which regularly preaches through books or extended portions of the Bible, includes the clear explanation, application, and proclamation of a passage of Scripture.”[26]

In expositional preaching, as Albert Mohler notes, “the text drives the message.”[27] Barth says that a preacher need not speak “about Scripture but from it.”[28] Expositional preaching follows the model given in Nehemiah 8:8 where, after the reading of the law, the priests “gave sense” to what had been read. Expositional preaching follows this pattern by reading the Bible as God has spoken it (2 Tim 3:16), and then giving sense to that text as to its proper contextual meaning and modern application. Any one text of Scripture must be first understood on its terms,[29] then within the scriptural metanarrative, and finally as it regards its modern hearers. Such a method is guided by a redemptive-historic hermeneutic,[30] which reads and interprets Scripture as an organic whole centering on Christ. This method allows the preacher to deal with all manner of doctrinal issues as they naturally emerge from the text, all in relation to God’s larger plan of uniting all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). Following the unity of the Holy Spirit’s work in Scripture,[31] expositional preaching forces the preacher to bring the word of God to his people in the way God intends.

The preacher takes the fixed and unchanging text of God’s revealed word and brings to his people in way that allows God to continue speaking today. God’s fixed word, rightly handled, is God’s living word by the power of His Spirit. And such a word, fixed and alive, most naturally leads to the right application of that word to God’s people. As the preacher reads the text and gives sense to its message, his exposition demands application. Akin notes that true exposition drives application,[32] which means a failure to apply to the text is a failure to fully exposit the text. Expositional preaching takes seriously the fixed nature of God’s word, seeking to understand and interpret that text on its own terms, trusting that as the word is rightly divided and applied, God is actively speaking in those moments.


God is Being Heard: The Listening of the Church


A final consideration of a theology of preaching is the place of preaching; the actual setting in which the preaching event occurs. As it has been noted, preaching begins with an understanding of the fact that God has spoken in his word, that God is still speaking his word as preachers rightly exposit and apply that word, and this all takes place in the gathered body of the church where the people hear the preacher, and thus, hear God.

Preaching demands an audience, but preaching is more than just public speaking. It is, as Vanhoozer notes, “speaking into the air,” but it is speaking God’s word into the air of God’s gathered people. As noted earlier, this paper defines preaching as the exposition and proclamation of the Word of God in its redemptive and historical context, empowered by the Holy Spirit, applied to the lives of a modern audience, effecting an encounter between God and man. For the last two components of this definition to be true, preaching must take place within the context of the gathered body of the church of the lord Jesus.

  • Karl Barth writes, "Neither preacher nor congregation must be viewed as an abstract entity. The Church does not find embodiment in the person of the preacher or in the congregation. It is both preacher and congregation…the situation of the preacher is that he belongs to the congregation, certainly as a bearer of an office, but of an office that was given him by the congregation, so that he must never feel superior to the congregation, but see that he is set within it as one who also simply hear the word of God again and again." [33] 


Thus, preaching is not merely a public address, but is the active hearing of the eternal word of God within the gathered body of the Church as a qualified elder,[34] appointed to that office by the Church, rises from within the body to deliver an exposition of Scripture, causing the voice of God to be actively heard in that moment.

“The sermon is the word of God for a particular time, place, and people” writes Richard Lischer.[35] Speaking of the oral nature of preaching, locating it within the physically gathered body of Christ, Lischer concludes that “the spoken word has its fullest truth among the people between whom it flourishes, and in the moment at which is happens. That is why printed sermons…are almost always duds. The preacher need not worry that his…words are not remembered, for the words are needed only so long as it takes for them to form Christ in the hearers.”[36]

Preaching is the exposition and proclamation of the Word of God in its redemptive and historical context, empowered by the Holy Spirit, applied to the lives of a modern audience, effecting an encounter between God and man.

**This post was originally presented as a position paper in a PhD seminar entitled, "A Theology of Preaching."


[1] Karl Barth, Homiletics (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 44.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, “From Bully Pulpits to Katapulpits.” Center for Pastor Theologians Conference 2023.

[3] Jonathan Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, An Exegetical and Biblical–Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2017), 18. Griffiths notes that words such as apangello and martyreo are also used in relation to preaching, but are not normally translated “to preach.”

[4] Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, 17. The three verbs are evangelizomai, katangello, and kerysso.

[5] Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Word, A Practical Theology of Preaching (Leicester, England: Intervarsity, 1996), 15. 

[6] Adam, Speaking God’s Word, 27.

[7] Here, the author is referencing the call of Abraham (Gen 12), the Angel of the Lord (Gen 32:22–32), the burning bush (Exod 3), the plagues in Egypt (Exod 7–11) the Sinaitic law (Exod 20), the ministries of the Prophets, and through the incarnation of Jesus Christ (Heb 1). 

[8] 2 Pet 1:19 ESV. All Scripture references will be from the ESV.

[9] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, A Guide to Historic Christian Belief (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 16.

[10] For an exhaustive treatment see Carl F.H. Henry’s magisterial six–volume work, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 1999).

[11] For a more comprehensive treatment, see Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament, chapter 3. 

[12] Certainly, there is no scriptural mandate that the pastor must pray before preaching, but the pastor who understands the nature of his task will not only desire to pray first, he will feel almost certainly feel naked without prayer.

[13] Gustaf Wingren, The Living Word, A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1960), 38.

[14] Al Mohler writes, “Preaching is not the task of saying something interesting about God, nor is it delivering a religious discourse or narrating a story.” He is Not Silent, Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2008), 50.

[15] Jude 3.

[16] Heb 4:12.

[17] Barth, Homiletics, 113.

[18] Wingren, The Living Word, 70. Wingren writes, “The Bible itself overflows into preaching, and is itself active when the preach of Christ to men takes place.”

[19] 1 Tim 3:1.

[20] Wingren notes that this carries the idea of being sent. “Sending implies that Christ speaks in preaching—that is to say, preaching cannot be carried on the basis of the preacher’s personal inner experiences, but depends on a commission, received from a sender, which even determines what is to be preached” (98). In this way, Wingren highlights the church’s responsibility to guard the preaching of the word by how it guards the elder’s chair (Titus 1:9).

[21] Psalm 23

[22] Acts 20

[23] Jason Meyer, Preaching, A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 225. The pastor “must exposit both ancient text and his contemporary audience in order to discover the most powerful points of contact…The pastor seeks to bring together the two things he has studied: a specific passage of the word of God and the specific flock has entrusted to his care and oversight.”

[24] R. Scott Pace and Jim Shaddix, Expositional Leadership, Shepherding God’s People from the Pulpit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024), 14-15.

[25] Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim, Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 151–164.

[26] Pace and Shaddix, Expositional Leadership, 14. 

[27] Albert Mohler, He is Not Silent, 65.

[28] Barth, Homiletics, 49. 

[29] Context, grammar, audience, author.

[30] Dennis, Him We Proclaim, 151–164.  

[31] 2 Pet 1:19–21.

[32] Daniel Akin, Bill Curtis, and Stephen Rummage, Engaging Exposition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013), 171. Akin notes that exposition creates a “bridge” to application that is “essential…to a healthy and holistic homiletical strategy.”

[33] Barth, Homiletics, 113.

[34] The author recognizes that preaching is not restricted to the office of elder (i.e. Evangelists, Eph 4:12, or pastors in training who are learning to preach but are not yet elders), but that those who most often preach will be elders.

[35] Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching, the Dynamics of the Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 60.

[36] Lischer, Theology of Preaching, 60. 

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