When We Preach Jesus


It was among the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Following a lesson on Matthew 2 in which I explained the redemptive-historical significance of Jesus’ flight to Egypt, an older member of the congregation put his arm around me and asked if he could offer some feedback. “Please,” I replied, “I am a seminarian; this is the season of life in which I need input.” I’m not sure I believed it, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to say.

The nice fellow proceeded to explain: “I realize you’re immersed in the study of biblical theology and find yourself captivated by the breathtaking scope of redemptive history, but you can’t live at 30,000 feet. The Bible’s overarching themes, running from Old to New and culminating in Jesus, are absolutely crucial; but there is more to the Bible than simply the ‘meta-level.’ In his incarnation, Jesus walked on real dirt roads. He awoke in the morning, ate breakfast, laughed, cried, and shed actual blood. Yes, there are wonders in the heavens above and signs in the earth below, but in this New Covenant, Peter and John also looked into the eyes of a broken leper sitting at a stone temple gate before lifting him by the hand to stand upon strengthened ankles. In other words, the inter-canonical drama must include the sights, sounds, and smells of human experience.”

The Forest and Its Trees

I am concerned that many of us in our gospel-centered universe are susceptible to this imbalance. Praise Jesus that there is now a greater concern for canonical integrity, that “eschatology” is understood to be far more than future events. For those of us who are big-picture thinkers, such an expansive view of the forest stirs the soul. “You mean Jesus recapitulated Israel’s wilderness wandering during his testing in the desert? Incredible!” Still, we must not forget that the forest has a lot of important trees, put there by God for a reason, which we do well to examine.

My point is simply one of caution. It can’t be an either/or. Preachers who tease out the existential dimensions of a passage without explaining the larger redemptive-historical and theological context will soon be in danger of reducing the Bible to a collection of moralistic lessons. Examples of this approach are common enough in American evangelicalism. Many preachers in my circles, however, will probably not drop their homiletical anchor here. More likely, it seems to me, we will fly at such a lofty, meta-narrative altitude, that we fail to perceive the sights and sounds of Jesus among his disciples. Lloyd Jones helps us here:

The big difference between a lecture and a sermon is that a sermon does not start with a subject; a sermon should always be expository. In a sermon the theme or the doctrine is something that arises out of the text and its context, it is something which is illustrated by that text and context.[1]

The key statement in this quote is the concept of meaning “that arises out of the text and its context.” Such meaning should tell the story of Old Testament hope, explaining how the seed of Abraham is the Savior of the world. But it must simultaneously recognize that this “seed” was a red-blooded man, the God/man, who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Such perspective enables us to leave Sunday morning worship struck by the miraculous coherency of salvation history and at the same time more deeply in love with the personal Savior who bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

[1] Martin Lloyd Jones. Preachers and Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 71.

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