On Sunday mornings, what exactly is at stake when a preacher stands behind your church’s pulpit? What’s happening?
If you don’t know, you may never understand the noises behind the pulpit: the yelling, the groaning, the weeping. You may never understand the man behind the pulpit: the weak, the limping, the zealous man. On Sundays, in listening to a sermon you might find yourself viewing a foreign film with no subtitles.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for my total transparency about the one impression I hope for this article to have on your soul: to grip your soul with prayer for your preachers. James says it this way:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:1-5).
James is straightforward, earnest, grave: be slow to become a teacher in your local church, because we are all stumblers. This truth, that we are all stumblers, is most magnified in words, the stuff that preaching and teaching is made of.
Words can be immeasurable: Sometimes we use too many words, sometimes we don’t use enough words. Sometimes you’re in the presence of somebody who just needs the ministry of presence, and you flood them with one million instructive words and accidentally crush them. Sometimes you’re in the presence of somebody who needs the ministry of words, and all you have for them is empathy and presence. When your friend needs you to write a novel, sometimes all you can do is Tweet. And when your friend only needs a Tweet, sometimes you crush them with a novel.
Words can be important: December 2011, at a movie party, Chloe (then) Brockshus turned to me and said, “Cole, did you know it’s going to be 39 degrees this weekend?” (If you don’t live in Iowa, then you clearly don’t understand that 39 degrees in December is warm weather for Iowans). To this I said, “We should go exploring together.” A few years later, Chloe Brockshus became Chloe Deike. Because of one conversation, my life was changed.
In seminary, John Piper read this one sentence written by Jonathan Edwards: “All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God.” What difference did that one sentence make in John Piper’s life? Since then, he has gone on to write these books and more: God’s Passion for His Glory, Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture, The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Creation, Finishing Life for the Glory of God, The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life, Captive to Glory. One sentence and his history was changed.
At the end of Christ’s crucifixion, he said this (which in the original Greek is only one word): “it is finished.” One word, when echoed into the world changed the history of the world when echoed into your heart changes the trajectory of your eternity. One word.
Words like, “repent!” “believe!” “live!” and “rejoice!” change the history of human lives.
Words can be counterproductive: Sometimes words accomplish the exact opposite effect that you intended them to have on a person. Have you ever sought to encourage somebody and somehow, with your carefully selected and thoughtfully crafted words, you discourage them?
Words can be insufficient: Sometimes, most times, words fail us. This feels embarrassingly obvious to me behind the pulpit. Follow this experientially: for most of the week, I spend time deep in prayer for the church, meditating and ruminating over the text, outlining the sermon, carefully choosing my words, studying theologians of the past, and with ten or twelve hours of preparation I step up the pulpit. With these ten or twelve hours behind me, I want to thunder about Jesus, I want to boom about his death and resurrection, I want people to hear the gospel with so much shattering force that unbelief melts and belief explodes in their chest.
And instead, the sermon feels like a squeak. This is Paul in Galatians: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Important note: the Galatians were not present at Christ’s crucifixion. But Paul plainly said: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
Paul is talking about preaching! This is John Calvin on this verse: “Let those who enter the ministry of the gospel learn not merely to speak and claim but to penetrate into the consciences of men to make them see Christ crucified before their very eyes, and feel the shedding of his blood in their very hearts.” Teaching isn’t ultimately about words, teaching is ultimately about seeing Christ crucified!
But still, words are the things preachers must handle. Yes, they are slippery. Yes, they are difficult to catch and even more difficult to train. But ultimately, James gives preachers a more severe motivation to pump the brakes: those who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
This verse is what drove John Knox long ago to say: “Never once have I feared the devil. And yet, every time I step behind the pulpit I tremble.”
What would make a teacher tremble behind the pulpit?
Well, there is social judgment.
Charles Spurgeon was so mocked by the public media that his wife hid the newspaper to help him retain his sanity. George Whitfield recounts on one occasion as a traveling preacher: “There I was honored with having stones, dirt, rotten eggs, and pieces of dead cats thrown at me.” Jonathan Edwards, famous for preaching soul-shattering and history-altering sermons, once urged his church in a sermon: “persons should avoid laying down their bodies in their seats in the midst of public worship.”
Even Edwards absorbed the social judgment of his very own church in the form of sleeping, like “laying down (their) bodies in their seats in the midst of public worship” sleeping, church members on Sunday mornings.
But social judgment is no reason to tremble behind the pulpit. We tremble because we’re preaching in the judgment of Jesus.
Are people going to send preachers angry e-mails? Who cares. Is society going to call preachers archaic for their doctrines and beliefs? Who cares. But is God going to judge preachers more strictly? Lord, pray for your preachers.
Jesus is going to stand in front of your preacher at the brink of eternity, and he will ask him: “What did you say to them?”
When he stands behind the pulpit, the judgment of God gets hotter on your preacher. When he stands behind the pulpit, your preacher is opening a door to heaven and hell. When he stands behind the pulpit, your preacher is speaking in such a way that Christ is crucified before your very eyes. Behind the pulpit, he’s bleeding in front of you.
They need your commitment: pray for them. They’re not simply crafting cute analogies, employing trendy language, or even just saying true things. They are putting their souls on the line for you. They’re dangling the feet of their souls over a cliff for you. They’re walking purposefully and directly into a task for which God will judge them with greater severity.
And this makes preaching not just a greater danger to them, but a greater joy. If your preacher is a faithful preacher of God’s word, this text will not only make him tremble more. It will make him slobber more. He will want the stricter judgment of God because of his faithfulness. He will look forward to standing in front of God and re-watching, re-listening, re-evaluating his sermons with God. He will slobber to hear God say to him, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
Pray for him.