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Summer 2006 , Vol. 3, No. 1

Editorial: Preaching the Power of God

Edgar R. Lee, S.T.D.
Editor and Senior Professor of Spiritual Formation and Pastoral Theology, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary

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Sometimes the nature of preaching is poorly understood, even by those who are its most fervent advocates. While pursuing excellence in their sermon craft, modern preachers often see preaching primarily in terms of its basic components: exegesis (what the text meant to the original writer and hearer), application (what the text means today), homiletical form (sermon structure) and delivery (oratory).  

While each of the above components is essential to good biblical preaching, none of them alone–nor all of them collectively–captures the essence of preaching. It is really quite easy to miss the forest as we closely examine the trees! Periodically, we need to ask, “What is the essential nature of preaching?”

Biblically, preaching derives from the Old Testament experience of “the word of the Lord.” The Hebrew term for “word” is dabar . According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament , the noun and its verbal counterpart occur more than 2,500 times in the Old Testament with a semantic range of “word,” “speech,” “speaking” and “thing.” Particularly interesting is the fact that dabar may be used both for the acts of a king, for example, as well as for the record of those acts in a book. The term can convey either the dynamism of the act itself or the historical memory of the act.  

Particularly significant are the approximately 400 times that God himself “spoke.” God’s speech, or Word, is first and foremost the going out of his personal power to reveal and accomplish what he wishes. Thus, in Isaiah 55:11, God speaking through the prophet illustrates the working of his Word by referring to rain and snow that facilitate the fruitfulness of the planet: “so is my word [ dabar ] that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” God is always present and active in his Word, filling it with certainty and power, revealing and accomplishing his will.

This understanding of the Word of the Lord pervades the New Testament as well. Thus, for Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed (the literal translation of the Greek theopneustos)” (2 Timothy 3:16a). Only because of its God-breathed quality is it “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (3:16b).

No wonder that the word used for the utterance of Peter’s “sermon” on the Day of Pentecost is apophthengomai (Acts 2:14). In Greek culture, apophthengomai was used for the weighty utterances of wise men and philosophers. More importantly, it was used especially for the speech of those thought to be prophets. Luke did not want us to miss the fact that Peter, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, was prophetically delivering the Word of the Lord to a bewildered audience.

Never reliant merely on their own creativity and skill, the early preachers were confident that they spoke with the power and authority of the Risen Lord. Thus, for Paul, “the gospel...is the power (dunamis) of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16) and “the message of the cross” may indeed be “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power (dunamis) of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  

Little wonder that Paul did not need to imitate the Greek rhetoricians with their “eloquence or superior wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1). “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration (apodeixei) of the Spirit's power (dunameos) so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (dunamei)” (2:4), he wrote. Not only was Paul’s preaching filled with God’s power ( dunamis ) to convert those who would respond in faith, it came with its own implicit proof. The word, apodeixis, means literally a “showing forth,” and hence can be translated also as “proof” or “evidence.”

The writer to the Hebrews wrote, most probably to a second generation of believers in Rome, that the “salvation…first announced by the Lord [Jesus], was confirmed to us by those who heard him [personal witnesses to Jesus]” (Hebrews 2:3). Then he added, “God also testified (sunepimarturountos) to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (2:4). The strong compound word, sunepimartureo, means literally “to testify at the same time.” Though the writer is looking back to the initial evangelization of that community, he puts sunepimartureo in the present participial form. The significance seems to be that not only was God personally present in his Word to confirm it to the first hearers but also that he continues to confirm it long afterwards. In doing so, he even utilizes extraordinary means as “signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit”

Peter likewise understood there was a special power in the Word of God. To those gifted by the Spirit to speak in various ways to the early congregations, he wrote they were to “do it as one speaking the very words of God (logia theou)” (1 Peter 4:11). Logia was used frequently in Scripture for the direct, revelatory utterances of God himself.

For those already believers, John taught they had been granted an “anointing” (chrisma) that enabled them to identify the authentic Word of the Lord even though the early Gnostic heretics were attempting to delude them by denying the incarnation of Jesus (1 John 2:20,27). In this case, the Spirit powerfully is at work in the hearers.

To sum up: divine presence and power uniquely characterize Christian preaching. To describe God’s personal activity in preaching, theologians sometimes have used the word “event.” Preaching is the “preaching event.” Wherever the Word of God truly is proclaimed, it is an “event” resonant with the voice of the great King himself! Rightly, preachers bring their best efforts to exegesis, application, form and delivery. But they also carefully prepare their own hearts so the Lord himself can speak through their human effort with power and certainty.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM