Preaching and Teaching

Martin Luther used to say, “When I preach I teach; when I teach I preach.”

I think he had it right. How can a man preach unless he has something to preach about? How can he preach about it unless he takes time to clarify what it is that he is speaking about? How can he be sure that he has made it known unless he has taken the time to explain it? In other words, how can he preach without teaching?

On the other hand, if he has rightly explained a passage of Scripture, how can he avoid urging what it says upon those to whom he has explained it? And if he has made its purpose clear to those to whom he speaks, how can he fail to encourage them to do what God requires of them? In other words, how can a man teach unless he preaches?

Perhaps that last question accounts for the widely-acknowledged sterility of the teaching encountered in many academic institutions. Truth is taught abstractly. Or—perhaps I ought to say—professors attempt to teach truth abstractly. The fact is, you can’t teach God’s truth in that way without distorting, weakening, or otherwise adversely modifying it. God has not spoken merely to fill our heads with facts. Every fact that He teaches us has implications for our lives. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that

God’s Word is active, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating deeply enough to cut open soul and spirit and joints and marrow; it can judge the thoughts and desires of the heart.

You can’t handle something with characteristics like that in an abstract, academic fashion. It won’t sit still while you examine and dissect it; indeed, when dealing with God’s revealed truth the situation is entirely reversed—it is the Word of God that examines and dissects you! The minute you try to distance yourself from the purposes and interpretations of the Scriptures, you thereby distance yourself from a proper understanding of them.

Conversely, the failure to adequately exegete, interpret and explain the Scriptures to those to whom you preach accounts for some of the frothy, emotional exhortation that is not squarely based upon understanding, but only upon what feelings the preacher can whip up. Tear-jerking stories, sophistical “reasoning,” and “spiritual” highs do not impart truth; as a matter of fact, they bypass it.

So, I contend that Luther was essentially correct when he inseparably connected the two elements. Biblical preaching and teaching may be properly distinguished only as a matter of emphasis.

It is interesting to notice that Jesus, Whose favorite title was “Teacher,” plainly preached as well (See Luke 4). The Sermon on the Mount is truly a sermon, which obviously—even to the untrained eye—embodied both elements of explanation (teaching) and exhortation (or preaching). To remove either element from it would destroy the whole. While there can be an emphasis upon preaching or upon teaching in a particular discourse, it would be difficult to say which predominated in the Sermon on the Mount.

Upon consideration of the Olivet Discourse, again you will find facts, and exhortations that are based upon them, interspersed throughout the message. Once more, to excise either the hortatory or the informational element would destroy the whole. Facts concerning the destruction of Jerusalem that Jesus revealed would have been extremely informative, but of what good would it have done His listeners apart from His strong exhortation to flee to the hills when the armies began to encircle the city? Once more, in an extended discourse, we see the two elements inseparably combined.

Abbreviated sayings, proverbs, and the like, are in essence mini-addresses that usually contain both elements whether stated or not. For example consider these words: “I am the Door; anybody who enters through Me will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). We learn the fact that Jesus is the entrance into salvation; and [implied] is the exhortation to enter. So, even where a truth is merely stated, nevertheless, the fact is set forth in such a way that a response to it is implied. And, likewise, when an exhortation is given, again, the truth behind it is clearly implied as the basis for it. Take, for instance, Proverbs 23:23, “Buy the truth and don’t sell it; also wisdom, discipline and discernment.” Implied is the fact (teaching) that only a fool would do so; therefore, cling to them with all your might.

So, since biblical knowledge and its use are inseparable, it would be foolish to attempt to do the impossible. If messages ought to contain both elements, it is important for preachers to recognize this and make sure that their messages rightly reflect the fact.

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