The Sacrifice of Praise (7): Hearing the Word

Liturgy and the question of how to worship are receiving a great deal of attention today—for better or for worse. That we should have and follow the proper guidelines for this is of the utmost importance. In this issue, Rev. Jerome M. Julien, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa, presents the seventh in a series of eight articles on the topic: The Sacrifice of Praise.

Whenever you enter a church building belonging to a congregation tracing its roots to the Reformation—if it is true to Reformation principles—you will see centrally located, or at least, in an outstanding position, the pulpit.

In some, the pulpit will be one of several pieces of furniture. There will also be a communion table and a baptismal font. In others, it will stand alone as it does in some of the non-conformist churches of England and also in the Independent Churches of America. Perhaps the pulpit will be very high in front of the auditorium. In order for the minister to get there, he must climb a long flight of stairs.

There is symbolism in all of this: the pulpit is very important. It is the place where the Word of God is preached. Whatever the congregation may be, if it is true to the Reformation principles and, therefore, true to the Word of God, all attention will focus on that Word. As you enter you will see the pulpit and hopefully even the Bible on the pulpit.

Of course, for those who stand in the Reformed tradition this makes a lot of sense because the Word which is read and preached is central in worship. But why?

Why is it that the first thing you see is the pulpit and not the communion table? Is it because as some criticize—that the Reformed people are an intellectual people? Some, you see, insist that we are too intellectual to love the emotion of the mass and the sacraments.

No, this is not the reason why the Bible is central in our worship. The Word is central in our worship and the pulpit is central in our seeing because of the emphasis that we find in Scripture on that Word of God.

In the Old Testament, God speaks covenantally: “The word is very nigh unto thee, in thy month, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14). And is that Word near? It is near through the spoken Word. When the Word is proclaimed so that you and I come to know the truth of the living God, it is near. Often, in the Old Testament, the attention is called to God speaking. How important that is! The only way that you and I know the truth of God is when God speaks.

In the New Testament, the emphasis is the same. The emphasis is on the preaching of the Word: “Go, into all the world and preach the Gospel” is the Great Commission. “Preach the Word, be instant in season and out of season,” Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy. Preach the Word! Don‘t forget preaching.

One of the many texts where we get a glimpse of preaching is I Corinthians 1:21, “For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.”

Foolishness! That’s the way the world looks at preaching and the message it brings, and that’s the way, sad to say, that many in the church look at preaching. It‘s foolishness. But notice what God says here. It is God‘s good pleasure through that preaching to save them that believe.

Now we consider another aspect of what we do when we worship before the throne of God. We consider the central aspect: The hearing of the Word.

This Is God‘s Way

Paul writes here that “it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.” And when Jesus gave the Great Commission He said, “Go, and preach the Gospel.” Now, the world has a different view, of course. The world says that its wisdom is sufficient. What it knows and understands is sufficient for life. But the Lord says, Preach the Word.

Every student in the seminary, and for that matter, every minister, has to come face to face with this command in Scripture. Why is he going to be a minister? His primary task is not counseling. Its not running some social program. It is to preach the Word. And that’s precisely the emphasis that we get all the way through the Word of God.

Yet, there have always been substitutes for preaching. Way back in the history of the church there were substitutes for preaching. Something in place of preaching is not a new idea. There is a lot of evidence for this.

Paul, as he writes these words, is engaged in a short defense of the preaching of the Gospel. He’s engaged in this defense because the world was laughing at preaching, calling it foolishness. What will preaching do for anyone? The mind of that day would substitute philosophical reasoning. But Paul points out that preaching is God’s way of communicating the Gospel authoritatively.

As the years went by, the decay of unbelief robbed the people of God of the hearing of the Word. And this unbelief was encouraged by the church! As you know from your study of Church history, the emphasis came to be more and more on the sacraments. For example, the mystery and the drama of the Mass with its sounding of the bells, words that had to be said at a certain time, and everything else that accompanied that long and involved ceremony were to be foremost in the minds of the people. With the development of sacramentarianism (an emphasis on the sacraments, not only on the table, but also on the font) the people were being robbed of the beauty of the preaching of the Word.

Oh, it wasnt that there was no preaching. There were many great preachers in the Middle Ages. In fact, some great preachers drew crowds larger than the crowds which gathered for George Whitefield, Dwight L. Moody, or Charles Spurgeon. However, the growing emphasis on the sacraments meant the inevitable downplay of preaching. The efficacy of preaching, the importance of preaching, what God does through preaching, was forgotten.

Thankfully, the Reformation came bringing not only a revival of preaching itself but also a preaching that was Biblical and expository in nature.

This emphasis has not remained strong, however. Today, there are many modern substitutes for the preaching of the Word. Tn fact, some in the church today –in both pew and pulpit—are even ready to say that preaching is foolish. They tell us that active, busy people need something other than preaching. They want entertainment; they want a program. Oh, yes, it must be spiritual, but it must be entertainment, too.

Even churches that go by the name of “Reformed” and that have insisted that the Heidelberg Catechism is their statement of faith have turned on what it says. It asks us in Question 65, “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?” Reformed people have always been glad to say, “From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” But now, in the place of preaching. there is anything but the exposition of the Word! Movies and plays, concerts and reports are in the place of the preaching of the Word. But God will “have His people taught . . . by the living preaching of His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 98).

In retaining preaching we must be insistent because of what Scripture teaches. In I Corinthians 1:21, we are told that preaching the Gospel—something foolish to men—is “God’s good pleasure.” Why preaching? Why couldn’t God use some other method? Why not a program of some kind? Why not a musical program? Why? Because it was God’s good pleasure, through preaching, to save them that believe.

Why not just some kind of an impact on our feelings? Why couldn‘t God do that? Why do we have to gather for worship so that we hear the preaching of the Word? Cant God just work on our feelings in some way? Why? It was God’s good pleasure, through the foolishness of the preaching, to save them that believe!

Neither a program nor an impact on feelings would authoritatively unfold the beautiful Gospel!

Scripture emphasizes that preaching is a divine announcement brought by an authorized man. He comes with an official announcement. He is bringing the very Word of God. It is not mans word. It is not just what man wants to report. He brings an exposition of the Word of God. He who preaches, then, is one who speaks with authority.

One of the New Testament words for preaching is a word that was also used for a man who spoke with authority at the great Homan games. In that day, they didnt havc a public address system such as we have. There was no way really for anyone at the games to hear the official announcement of who had won. Therefore, the emperor would have certain men there who would run throughout the crowd to bring the official announcement of who had won.

Now, of course, you can say it really didnt make much difference. After all, the people could see. But you know how it is. The umpire sees it one way you see it another. And finally, there has to be one word that’s official! The emperor would give the official word: “That man won.” Immediately, the men would run bringing the official message. Oh, perhaps others had already seen it that way, but now they have heard the official word. These men were called heralds.

According to Scripture, the minister heralds the Gospel—he brings official word. He brings the Word of God to God’s people. The minister does not just witness to the truth. The sermon is different from a witness. We are not all preachers. though some tell us that today. We are all witnesses. However, a witness and a preacher are two different things. The preacher brings the authoritative Word of God. The preacher is as the ambassador. You are as the newspaper reporter: You are a witness.

What do we mean? Take an example like this. A treaty is signed in Washington. Besides the government officials and the ambassadors involved, the newsmen are there. They hear it. Immediately, it is headline news. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, papers east and west bear the news. But the country which this treaty concerns does not really know officially. They can read the newspapers and hear the network news but they do not have the official word. The ambassador must send the news officially. The newspapers bear witness; the ambassador brings the official declaration.

According to Romans 10:14, preaching is considered the very voice of God. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” Did you notice what it says? “And how shall they believe in him” (that is, in the Christ) “whom they have not heard?” Not “of whom” but “whom. . . .” And then the next question: “And how shall they hear without a preacher?” The man who brings the Word of God brings the very voice of God to the people of God!

This Is God’s Way to Knowledge

Now, why is the sermon important? Because it is God’s way to the knowledge of His Truth. Through His knowledge is the answer to the many questions that puzzle and perplex us, and to which men try to nnd their own answers: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my real problem? Where am I going? All of these questions and many more perplex men as they live in this world. Only in the knowledge of God are answers found to these questions.

The world’s way to answering these questions is through its own wisdom. The world speculates on what it reads in creation. But what is supposed to show “clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity” (Rom. 1:20) they read without God. They get answers to the questions that plague them which are ever so unsatisfactory.

What is wrong? The error is clear. They omit God, Christ and the cross. Because of sin, all that seems sufficient is the created world understood by the human mind. Of course, this is so because of the perversion of the mind brought about by sin. But to the world, the official announcement of the Truth of God—the preaching of the Gospel—is foolishness. While we can understand the world’s reaction, it’s hard to understand why the Church should go along with this thinking.

After all, this which the world caBs foolishness is wisdom for the believers. The Bible says, “faith cometh by hearing.” No, this doesn’t mean that one must hear first and then the Holy Spirit works. Of course not. How can someone hear first and then the Holy Spirit work? We’re dead in sin, as Ephesians 2 tells us. How can someone who is dead in sin bear spiritually? He can‘t unless God works first. Nor does this discount the sacraments, the visual preaching of the Word. Preaching gives foundation to the table and the font. Through preaching the sacraments take their rightful place in worship.

Rather, through the hearing of the Word, we gain true knowledge. The answers to the most important and basic questions of life are announced to us. Why are we here? We are here to glorify God; don’t let anyone tell you differently. Where are we going? Either to heaven or to hell. Who am I? I am a created being, created by the sovereign God. All of the answers are there.

What makes that preaching of the Word so powerful is not pulpit eloquence, as wonderful as that may be. That does not make the preaching have lasting effect on you and me. Nor is it novelty that makes that preaching powerful. Some are always looking for new and different ways to tickle their fancies. But that’s not the way that preaching has effect and power. Preaching has power and effect only by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and that’s something the world does not understand.

And so by divine direction, we have preaching in our worship services. It‘s the official announcement of the Truth of God. It‘s a declaration of what God has said. It‘s the exposition of God’s Holy Word so that when you go home, you know what God has said. And through hearing what God says faith comes, faith grows. But do we really hear?

Maybe we grow dull to preaching because we’re not attentive. True, listening involves work. Here is another form of that personal involvement necessary in worship. You are involved when you’re listening to the sermon! It takes work. If we would listen to our teacher when she gives directions in school the way we listen to the Word of God being preached, quite a few of us would flunk! If we would listen to our boss when he gives directions on how to do a job the way we listen to the Word of God we’d be out of work by the end of a week! No one else can listen for us!

But how are we going to listen? There are so many ways our attention is drawn away.

First, we must prepare to listen. Church-going involves preparation. There is need for prayer preparation. Through the week we must ask the Lord’s blessing on the minister and his preparation. Often, those who criticize the minister never think to pray for him. We must trust the Lord prayerfully for a mind which is free from clutter so that when Sunday comes we can worship with clarity of thought.

There must also be mental and physical preparation to hear the Word. Entertaining enmity and nourishing hatred we are not able to worship. Before we go to the Lord in worship, this kind of corruption must be gone! Late Saturday nights full of distracting activities are not helpful for worship. With what do we fill our minds on Saturday night? Are we physically rested for Sunday morning?

Hearing the Word also involves attentiveness. True, this is hard. For this we must work. Ask the Lord for it. Do what you can to develop it. Perhaps you will and note-taking helpful. Many others have!

Really, if we truly love the Lord we will try to listen for we know that “faith cometh by hearing.”

This Is Gods Way

Culminating in Blessing He who listens in faith finds that there are blessed results in his life. Through preaching we come to know the joy of the Lord. We come to know what God has done for us, and we come to know that great plan of redemption that God has laid out before us.

Of course, this first happened when we came to know the Lord. With eyes opened by grace we came to see the wonderful Savior. Having hearts prepared by grace we knew there was salvation no other way. What joy! There was the Savior! And we believed. We knew salvation.

But there is more to this salvation: the believer experiences that joy of the Lord because constantly he is led into a deeper faith. You and I receive constant instruction in the three things that we need to know in order to live and die happily—sin, salvation, service; or guilt, grace, and gratitude. We will never, never know what it is to praise the Lord with thankful living until we know what salvation is all about. As we hear these wonderful truths explained again and again, we are led into a deeper understanding of the truth of God. We grow in the Lord as the Holy Spirit works.

Through the preaching of the Word we receive instruction as to what it is to be a kingdom of priests, for that‘s what covenant people are, according to Scripture. The Holy Spirit applies the privileges of being one of God’s own whose name is engraven upon the palm of His hand.

The Holy Spirit applies the duty of this relationship, too. And He tells us again and again how we are to live.

As the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word, He stimulates gratitude. He makes us know God’s wonderful works. He shows us the providences of God. Our hearts become so full of praise that we cant begin to express our gratitude for what God has done.

As the Word is heard the Holy Spirit sanctifies us so there can be only one reaction: Gratitude, Our hearts continue to overflow with gratitude for what God has done. Our lives, more and more, become living epistles that we are the Lords.

Oh, it was God’s pleasure, through the foolishness of preaching, to save. That doesn’t mean that initial salvation alone. That means sanctification, too.

Praise the Lord for the open Word!