“I really appreciated your sermon…”
I cringed inwardly during the brief pause after the word “sermon.” I cringed, because I could tell what word was coming next.
I was at a local nursing home where, once per month, I went to lead a church service and preach. This particular lady loved to chat after the service was over.
“…you talk about Jesus too much.”
I thought that was one of the nicest compliments anyone has ever made about my preaching! I reminded her of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, and explained that this was my preaching model so I had a hard time imagining that I could be talking about Jesus “too much.”
I'm sure most of my pastor friends would say the same thing. We love talking about Jesus; talking about Jesus is at the heart of what we do.
And yet … evidence suggests that we’ve left some fairly large knowledge gaps when it comes to Christians’ understanding of Jesus.
Back in the early 2000s, my cousin David and I prepared a concert/show/sermon in which we talked extensively about the Old Testament shema – the command found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. This Old Testament verse is significant for Christians because Christ declared it to be the greatest command of scripture. I introduced Deuteronomy 6:5 by reminding the congregation of the time that someone asked Jesus, “What is the most important commandment?” (Matthew 22:34-40). I set the scenario and said, “And someone tell me what Jesus’s response was.”
There was silence. I was surprised. Maybe they weren’t sure I expected an answer? Maybe they thought I was being rhetorical? I reiterated the question and encouraged someone to call out the answer. Still nothing. I had to answer my own question.
Well, that was just one church, right? If we went to another church, we’d get a different response, right? Surprisingly, as we took this presentation to many churches around New England, silence was the standard response to this question.
I was stunned. We have a place in the gospels where Jesus declared a hierarchy of Biblical commands, and so many Christians didn’t know it even happened. What could have caused this knowledge gap?
I looked to my own self and asked the question, “Why do I know about this conversation in the gospels?” For the life of me, I can’t remember ever hearing a pastor talk about this in a sermon. I must have read it for myself.
This was not an isolated incident, either; there have been many times over the years that I’ve been in a church and referred to something Jesus said (or did), and have been met with blank stares, suggesting that the majority of the congregation was unfamiliar with the events I was talking about.
What does this tell us? It tells us two important things. The first is that our parishioners, by and large, are not reading their Bibles. Or, at least, they are not reading the gospels. The second is that we, as preachers and teachers, may not be teaching about Jesus very thoroughly.
How can this be? We all talk about Jesus. A lot! Right? Perhaps the issue is the manner in which we teach about Jesus, and the specific content we choose to teach. If we’re missing something, we need to understand where that lack comes from, and we need to address that lack.
1 Corinthians 2:2 could be paraphrased as follows: “All I’m going to talk about is Jesus, and His crucifixion.”
Charles Spurgeon devoted an entire sermon (#2673) to this passage. In it, Spurgeon argues powerfully for the preeminence of Christ and His crucifixion. Yet, as I read this sermon and other things Spurgeon wrote, I think he was conflating two things into one. I think he was reading this as, “know nothing among you except Christ's crucifixion.” At a couple significant points in his sermon, the words “Christ and” were left out: “…but to make Christ crucified the grand object of his attention…” and “…have that truth preached in connection with the cross of Christ…”
Those statements should have read “but to make Christ and His crucifixion the grand object of his attention,” and “have that truth preached in connection with Christ and His cross.”
For Spurgeon, preaching Christ was synonymous with preaching the cross. He is famous for having said that he takes his text and “makes a beeline to the cross” (or words to that effect). Paul would have said (again paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 2:2), “I have determined to make a beeline to Christ and to His crucifixion.”
Perhaps you think I’m nitpicking here. After all, you can’t talk about the crucifixion without talking about Christ too, right? I don’t think I’m nitpicking. Let me give you a quick illustration of this. My son likes to draw. I like to share his drawings with others so they can see what he’s doing. I might say, “I love talking about my son and the things he draws.” But if all I ever do is talk about my son in relation to his drawings, people will come to conclude that my son does nothing except draw. This is far from the truth! My son loves dinosaurs. He loves to have books read to him. He loves music. He loves pizza and nachos. He loves helping me pick Japanese beetles out of our garden. He loves playing with his little sister, and his little cousin. None of these other things detract from his love of drawing, but if all I do is talk about him in the context of his drawings, you really don’t know much about my son at all!
The same is true of Jesus. If we read “know nothing but Christ and Him crucified” as “know nothing but Christ’s crucifixion,” we are offering our congregations a very limited picture of Jesus.
I wish I could have been present for some of Paul’s first-century sermons. In Acts 20, Paul preaches in Troas all night long! What did Paul say during those eight to twelve hours of preaching? Did he preach on eschatology? Old Testament hermeneutics? I have a hypothesis.
Remember that Paul was preaching in a Greek city where, if people had heard of Jesus before Paul arrived, they had only heard whispers of rumors of a Jewish “criminal” who was crucified. What did Paul teach them? I think he told them stories of Jesus. Jesus feeding the five thousand. Jesus healing lepers. Jesus falling asleep in a boat. Jesus welcoming little children and rebuking His disciples. And, of course, along with all this, Jesus before Pilate, and Herod. Jesus being beaten and crucified. Jesus rising from the dead and returning to heaven in glory.
What is the evidence? The only evidence I have is this: that the apostles didn't think it was necessary to include those stories in their epistles. The danger I face is that I may read the epistles and forget that by the time the churches received these epistles, they were already very well versed in the stories of Christ.
If I'm not careful, I may reduce Christ to a series of doctrinal statements like this: “Christ died for your sins, rose from the dead, and will come again for you.” This is true (and important!), but if this is all we have to say about him, we have a very human-centric way of looking at Christ. We are implying that Christ exists solely for our salvation. Christ is worthy of glory, honor, and adoration for his own sake, and our teaching must be Christ-centric rather than us-centric.
At times I’ve bought into an unspoken notion that the only thing people really need to know is the gospel, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, and the words and deeds of our Savior are only important insofar as they lead to explaining the gospel. In so doing, I’ve created a sort of “Doctrinal Jesus” who is really just a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the true Jesus.
I want to make it clear now that I am not opposed to doctrine, and I’m certainly not opposed to the preaching of the gospel. I delight to have opportunities to share the Good News of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and the hope of resurrection and eternal life that we have in Him.
What I am suggesting is that we have a tendency to distill Jesus down to a set of propositional truths. Jesus is more than doctrinal facts and propositions. He is a living, breathing person. He is God with us in the flesh. He walked, He wept, He ate, He slept, He touched, He grew. These are not the matters of doctrine which the apostles focused on in their letters. Yet they are deeply and profoundly important. If they were not, we would not have four books of the New Testament devoted to these subjects. Previously I commented that it's easy to regard the words and deeds of Christ as important only insofar as they give me an opportunity to preach the gospel. Here is what Doctrinal Jesus looks like when he shows up in my preaching:
There is a grave danger that I will even begin to think that Christ fed five thousand people specifically so He would have an opportunity to do some theology lessons. In reality, the passage tells us that is not the case; His motives are clearly spelled out. I must not let the fact that Jesus saw opportunities for teaching everywhere fool me into thinking that His actions were nothing more than a prelude to teaching and theology.
All aspects of Christ’s life and ministry are important – not just the good news as described in I Corinthians 15, but also the good news as described by Jesus himself in Mark 1:14-15.
The kingdom of God has come near in the person of Jesus Christ. Telling the stories of the incarnate Christ advances the gospel in ways beyond our understanding. My teaching of the gospel is weakened if I talk far more about the gospel than I talk about the Author of that gospel. As Andrew Murray wrote, “The Giver is more than the gift; God is more than the blessing.”
When I was growing up the brokerage firm E. F. Hutton had advertisements in which people walk through crowded, noisy cities. One says, “My broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says….” Suddenly, all the noise of the city stops, and the crowds pause to listen. The voiceover says, “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen.”
I’ve got to tell you, with one minor (but very large) change to that statement, it describes perfectly my experiences in teaching the Word of God: “When Jesus speaks, people listen.”
My experience has consistently been that nothing causes a group of people – young, old, or mixed – to sit up and listen more than talking about Jesus. People are hungry to hear the stories of Jesus. The things Jesus said, the things Jesus did – there is something deep within us that is desperate to hear these things.
What is it about talking about Jesus – really talking about Him – that draws people in? Why does it matter so much that we spend time on the life and deeds of Christ? There are a couple answers to that question. One answer is for believers, and the other is for unbelievers.
For unbelievers, the answer is found in John 20:31, where John says that he has written these things so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. We don’t tell the stories of Jesus because we hope unbelievers will be inspired to be good; we tell the stories of Jesus because He is utterly good, utterly holy, and utterly divine. That utter goodness, holiness, and divinity sets him apart from all others and leads unbelievers to say, “This is the Christ, the son of God.”
For this reason, if I’m in a situation where I will be sharing several messages with the same audience (like a summer camp) I won’t talk about the cross until the second or third day; the first day or two are my opportunity to let them see the glory of Christ’s goodness before I bring them to the point of seeing how that goodness led Him to the cross. My experience has been that when taught this way, my students have a greater understanding and appreciation for the gospel, and they are more prepared to believe.
A few years ago I was invited to speak to a group of international children. “Don’t be surprised,” I was warned, “if it doesn’t go smoothly. Some of these children have been told by their parents that they can listen to you, but if you start talking about Jesus, they are to put their fingers in their ears. Some of them may have been told to start being disruptive.”
Oh. Thanks for the heads-up. So what do I do? Aside from praying … a lot, I decided to begin by telling the story of the woman at the well -- only I didn't speak of Jesus by name. I chose this episode from Christ's life not because I was eager to get to the theology of “springs of living water,” but because these children needed to hear about a man who didn’t care what their nationality was, and who loved them for who they were. By the time I got around to mentioning the name of this mystery man, the children were so captivated by Him that there were no fingers in ears, and not a peep of disruption. Not because I’m a good teacher, but because I know who to talk about.
For believers, the reason for talking about the life and deeds of Christ is different. The New Testament is filled with instructions to know Jesus, to fix our eyes on Him. One particular verse, I think, is key here. 2 Corinthians says:
Why teach the words and deeds of Christ to believers? Because Christ is the great transformer, and I want my listeners to behold Him and be changed. I don’t even have to draw “practical applications.” I don’t have to say, “This is what Jesus did – you go do the same”; all I need to say is, “This is what Jesus did – isn’t He glorious?” The transformations happen because of who Jesus is. Not because I’m a good teacher, but because I know who to talk about.
How does all of this affect my understanding of my role as a preacher? My primary role is not to impart doctrine (though that is an important part of it). Instead, my preaching is both an act of worship, and leading others into worship. If my preaching does not cause the congregation to love the Savior more deeply, and worship Him more fully, what have I accomplished? And how will they love Him more deeply if they do not know Him more deeply?
I evaluate my preaching and ask myself some difficult questions. How often does the Savior make His way into my preaching? Do I go to the gospels only at Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter? When I do speak of Jesus, am I really talking about Him? Or am I simply reciting doctrinal statements about Him? If someone new comes to my church knowing nothing about Jesus, at the end of the year, how much will they know about Jesus, apart from the gospel essentials? (To be clear: they must know the gospel essentials -- this is not an either/or proposition!) When I do speak of Jesus, is my own devotion on display for all to see? Or is it just my own intellectual prowess in forming theological arguments?
As I prepare to preach, no matter what book of the Bible I’m preaching from, I saturate myself in the gospels. Long ago I made a commitment that I would read through each of the four gospels at least once per year. That doesn’t mean I do an in-depth study of any of them; sometimes that reading consists of simply sitting down on some Sunday afternoons and reading through a gospel from start to finish. I cannot help my congregants behold Jesus if I am not consistently beholding Him as well. If you are a preacher, I highly recommend this practice. If you’re not a preacher, I still recommend it!
As I become more and more saturated in the gospels, I discover that no matter where in the Bible I am, I will read something that reminds me of Jesus. I follow that train of thought and see where it leads. We believe, after all, that Jesus Christ is the Word of God who took on flesh. If He is, as He said in Matthew 5, the fulfiller of the law and the prophets, we should expect to be reminded of Him throughout scripture. I don’t ignore those reminders. I explore them, meditate on them, and carefully place them in my message. My goal is to always be Christ-conscious and Christ-centric in my preparation.
Here are some common phrases that show up in my sermons, as a result of this way of preparing:
Sometimes they’re just little things – a few sentences here or there. Sometimes I end up telling an entire episode from the life of Christ as a result. But either way, I am anchoring my sermon in Jesus Christ, no matter where I started in the Bible. I don’t have to make a beeline from my passage to Jesus, but sooner or later, generally, I end up with Him.
I started this website because I believed (and still believe) that object lessons and illustrations are a powerful way to illuminate the meaning of a passage of scripture. But as I’ve aged and grown, I’ve come to realize that the most powerful source of object lessons and illustrations is right at our fingertips. Jesus Himself is the substance and the illumination of scripture.
Sometimes it might seem unlikely that something in the passage would remind you of Jesus. A few years ago I was preaching a series from Romans 12, and when I got to “practicing hospitality” I thought, “How does Jesus fit here? He didn’t even have a home!” Of course! What better illustration of hospitality: a man who has no home, yet treats even a hillside and a hungry crowd as an opportunity for hospitality. Or perhaps I could remind the congregation of the things Jesus said about hosting a feast (I would guess that many congregations are unaware of this passage – and they should not be!). And then, going to the very end of the scriptures, we have the ultimate act of hospitality performed by anyone: Jesus Christ will welcome in His ragtag band of followers into the glorious wedding feast!
So what happens if nothing in your passage makes you think, “Oh, this reminds me of Jesus!”? Don’t try to shoehorn Him in. I’ve read more than one author saying that Spurgeon often did disservice to his passage because he tried too hard to make a beeline to the cross. Don’t do disservice to the passage in your eagerness to talk about Jesus. But if you don’t see Jesus in the passage, then make a point to have a separate part of your service where you read some words from the gospels. That way your listeners will not go away still hungry for that one voice, that one person, they most need in order to be filled.
This is crucial because, in general, the people of our day are as unknowledgeable of Christ as the people of Troas were. In some cases that is as true of the people in the church as it is of outsiders. There is within us a deep hunger that only Jesus can fill. Let us make sure we're giving them Jesus!
Please understand, too, that I'm not suggesting we should teach the epistles and other books less. What I am suggesting is that we can teach Jesus more without diminishing everything else, as long as we are Christ-conscious in all our preparations.
There’s an old hymn we sang a lot when I was a child, and I often think of it still: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.” It’s a good reminder to me that there isn’t just one story of Jesus; there is a multitude of stories. The first two verses are a good conclusion to this essay:
Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear;
Things I would ask Him to tell me if He were here:
Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea,
Stories of Jesus, tell them to me.
First let me hear how the children stood 'round His knee,
And I shall fancy His blessing Resting on me;
Words full of kindness, deeds full of grace,
All in the love light of Jesus' face.