Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael

To Make Known and to Make Mature


The Purpose of Preaching

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 12:3-6; Colossians 1:21-23, 26-28 (text)

May 27, 2012 Download this sermon (PDF)


Congregation of Christ: Below are a couple of wanted ads for pastors in conservative evangelical churches, one for an “Executive Pastor” and the other one for a “Director of Youth Ministries.” I gleaned some of the more important job qualifications and responsibilities listed in the ads:

Executive Pastor:
Proven track record of effective staff leadership and development
Exceptional organizational skills and excellent oral and written communications skills
Lead the development of integrated plans across ministries
A close personal relationship with Jesus Christ
Bachelors degree and a strong background in business and organization management

Director of Youth Ministries:
Love kids/ build relationships
Meet with youth “where they are”
Plan large group high adventure events and gatherings
Lead youth in the pursuit of meaningful corporate worship
Plan and lead youth on mission trips

Note the recurring theme: “leadership and management skills.” What about the primary duties of a pastor being a “Minister of the Word and Sacrament”? The educational requirement for the “Executive” position is a Bachelor’s degree related to business management. Is the church looking for a pastor or a CEO? And the duties of the youth pastor seem to revolve about fun and games. And how can this youth pastor lead them in “meaningful corporate worship” when there is no knowledge of the doctrines of preaching and worship?

In these two sample ads, notice the absence of any requirement for preaching skills and Bible training and knowledge. How will there be “meaningful worship” without Biblical preaching? Or is “meaningful worship” merely the trivialities of “praise and worship”?

Today, we start a four-part series on the doctrine of Biblical preaching, a doctrine lost in the image of the preacher and preaching today. In this series, we will study a passage from Colossians 1:21-29. The apostle Paul starts the passage by explaining how the Colossians were formerly unbelieving Gentiles alienated from and hostile to God, but in Christ, have now been reconciled to God. Then he goes on to describe his labor as he preached to make Christ known the Colossian church. Paul then shifts the focus to describe his own work—even sufferings—“to make the word of God fully known” to them by preaching the gospel. The purpose of his labor of preaching is to present the Colossian saints “holy and blameless and above reproach before [God].”

Our theme in this part part on the doctrine of preaching is the dual purpose of preaching: “To Make Known and to Make Mature.” We will study this theme under two headings: first, “To Make Christ Known Among the Gentiles”; and second, “To Make All the Saints Mature in Christ.”

To Make Known Among the Gentiles
We often hear of pastors preaching to meet the “felt needs” of their congregations: restoring broken relationships; avoiding debt; curing loneliness; improving low self-worth; and maintaining physical health. These are what most pastors and unrepentant sinners would like to hear with their itching ears.

But what does Paul say in Colossians 1 that are the most pressing needs of sinners? In verse 13, they need to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom. They need redemption and forgiveness of sins in verse 14. They need to be re-created in the image of the Son of God, to submit under his rule, and to escape the curse of death (verses 15-18). Sinners need to be reconciled and have peace with God, and be holy and blameless before him in whom the fullness of God dwells (verses 20-21, 19).

Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael, 1515-16 (click to enlarge)
Paul Preaching in Athens by Raphael, 1515-16 (click to enlarge)

These verses that come before our text describe the “true needs,” not “felt needs,” of sinners: “guilty, defiled, spiritually dead, broken, enslaved, tyrannized by fear, self-deceived, alienated and alone.”[ref]Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 70-71.[/ref] Paul says that this message of salvation and peace “has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (verse 23), meaning, to the whole Roman empire, and to both Jews and Gentiles. Because of Christ’s work of reconciliation, God has also “qualified [the Colossians] to share in the inheritance,” people who used to be outside of God’s covenant promises. They, and all other Gentile believers are now also Abraham’s children of promise (Gal 3:29), and have equal access to the Father. Sinners think they have needs according to their own feelings, but God knows their true needs—needs that are much deeper than their “felt needs.”

In the old covenant, Israel was the foreshadow of God’s universal church. The whole world was divided into two peoples: Israel, God’s chosen nation, and all other people outside of God’s covenant, whom the Bible calls “Gentiles.” But in the new covenant, all of God’s covenant people are those who have been united to Christ by faith and are called “children of Abraham,” whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28). So everyone outside the covenant—unrepentant and unbelieving sinners—are called Gentiles.

The purpose of preaching is to call Gentiles out of their alienation from God’s kingdom, hostility against God, and doing evil works (verse 21). Preaching is God’s way of making known to sinners “how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (verse 27). This mystery is God’s unfolding plan for the world, especially for Gentiles who were formerly outside of God’s covenant nation. This plan that was hidden for ages is that through the Messiah’s life, death and resurrection, he will redeem sinners from all nations to give them the hope of glory.

The prophets of the Old Testament already saw some elements of this hidden mystery, but is now revealed in Christ and unfolding before the eyes of Christians when he came into the world. Daniel prophesied five centuries before this unfolding, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Dan. 2:28). Through Paul, God then unfolded this mystery of the redemption of Jews and Gentiles from all nations, and now God is creating “one new man in place of the two” (Eph 2:11-22).

Preaching in the Old Testament law, prophets and psalms was primarily to God’s people Israel. But now, preaching is chiefly to Gentile nations to make Christ known to them. They are being called out of their idolatry to worship the Son of God, in whom is the only way to salvation (Acts 4:12). Preaching is widened to include not only Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, but also outward to Samaria, to the Roman empire, and to the whole world. Thus, God himself is fulfilling his promise to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3), and to Isaiah, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth” (Isa 12:5).

Pentecost by Jean II Restout, 1732 (click to enlarge)
Pentecost by Jean II Restout, 1732 (click to enlarge)

Now, even the language of preaching has changed. On the day of Pentecost, which we commemorate today, the apostles preached to the diverse crowds of Jews gathered in Jerusalem. But what did they hear? They heard the gospel from unlearned men from Galilee in their own tongues! “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, although raised speaking the ancient Hebrew language (Phil 3:5), preached and wrote in Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman world.

So even the writers of the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, proud Englishmen and Scots, recognized the new “language” of the new covenant: “Because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God… [the Scriptures] are to be translated into the common language of every nation unto which they come…” (WCF 1:8). This is why in the Philippines, the Bible has been translated into all the major languages such as Cebuano, Tagalog and Ilocano, plus many of the languages of the remotest regions of the country, such as Blaan, Subanen, and various Ifugao languages.

When my wife and I were still part of Wycliffe Bible Translators, we asked people in our presentations: How many languages are there in the world? 500. No. 1,000. No. 2,000. No. 4,000 No. There are over 6,000 languages in the world! Talking about Babel! Today, Babel is being reversed, because hundreds of translations are being done even in the remotest parts of the world in order that salvation will be made known among the Gentiles. Therefore, in the age to come, it may be that all believers will be speaking one language: the language of the one eternal kingdom.

We preach the gospel to the Gentiles to make known to them Christ and his work of redemption. But Christ’s work does not end in making salvation known to sinners. His work continues as believers are transformed to maturity from the old to the new creation.

To Make the Saints Mature in Christ
The goal of preaching in the new covenant is not only to bring salvation to God’s chosen people. It is not merely to bring them to a sure knowledge of the gospel, but also to “a hearty trust which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that… forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 21).

Through the preaching of the gospel, Paul seeks to re-create sinners into a new creation as the image of God, with true righteousness and holiness and knowledge of God. So he tells the Colossian believers and you that Christ has now reconciled you “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (verse 22). As sinners reconciled to God, you are being transformed daily from sinners outside of God’s kingdom, to a people who are holy, blameless and above reproach before the sight of God. Not that you have your own righteousness, but that by faith, Christ has given you his own righteousness.

By the power of the Spirit, Christ is now working in you to present you holy and blameless, just as the Old Testament described animals presented to the priests for sacrifices and offerings to God. All offerings for the atonement of sin should be animals without blemish (Lev 9:3). Even the Levitical priests must also be without blemish (Lev 21:21). Such is the foreshadow of the Christ, the Passover Lamb without blemish, who would offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. And such is also the foreshadow of God’s people whom Christ will bring to his Father for inspection: they will be without blemish, “holy and blameless and above reproach.”

The Holy Spirit is working in you to accomplish this final goal of preaching. You are being made holy—cleansed from all sin and wholly separated unto God for his service. You are being made blameless—without any blemish or defect whatsoever, like the Old Testament sacrifices (Phil 2:15). You are being made to be completely above reproach—no one may accuse you of any fault or wrongdoing (Tit 1:6, 7).

Later in verse 28, Paul summarizes this idea as spiritual maturity in Christ. The goal of preaching is to bring all of us to spiritual maturity as we learn Christ. Paul uses the same word when he challenges those in Philippi who are “mature” Christians to humble themselves, “Let those of us who are mature think this way.” In other words, even in their maturity in Christ, they are to humble themselves and not to think that they have already arrived, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” as Paul speaks of himself (Phil 3:15, 12).

In our text, Paul looks forward to that day when finally, Christ will bring his people to his Father and present them perfect, complete and mature. On that day, Paul, all the apostles and prophets, and all faithful ministers will see the fruit of their labors, when they “present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2), “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8). On that day of the marriage supper of the Lamb, Christ will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).

To this end, preaching Christ is called “evangelism,” because it brings the “good news” or evangel of salvation from sin, death, and God’s wrath by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But many Christians have the wrong idea that the gospel is only for unbelievers, and that preaching is evangelistic only in the sense of preaching to the unsaved to bring them to faith in Christ.

This is far from biblical. The gospel is not only for unbelievers, but also for believers! When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he spoke of his obligation to all—Greeks and non-Greeks, wise and foolish. Addressing Roman believers whom he had never personally seen until he went there to plead his case to Caesar, he wrote that he was “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom 1:14-15).

Many think that the gospel is the simple, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” If this were the only preaching required every Lord’s Day, my task would be greatly simplified. I would not have to pick a passage, do the exegesis and interpretation, and think about the best way to proclaim it to you. I would have to plainly say, “Believe that Christ died for sinners and repent of your sins, and call on a member to give a testimony about his life. Then I would continue with a call to everyone who want to accept Jesus in their hearts to raise their hands, and after several rounds of “Just As I Am,” I would say, “You’re dismissed.”

No, the gospel must continue to be preached. Christ’s life of perfect obedience, his atoning death for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead for our justification and sanctification must be preached every Lord’s Day. Why? Because, like Israel of old, you will hear God’s word one day, then rebel in unbelief the next day. We are no different from Israel: we are as forgetful as the Jews. This is why Paul tells believers in Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1Cor 15:1-2). We need constant reminders of the gospel of Christ that saves, and transforms us into new creations in Christ.

The other day, I heard “Guidelines” by Harold Sala on the radio. The theme for the week is “How to Avoid Debt,” and he sprinkled his guidelines with many Bible verses about financial management and stewardship of money. Well and good. There are many Biblical principles that can be applied to our financial benefit. But is this what God’s people need to hear? And Mark Driscoll’s pointers about sexual relationship between husband and wife? And Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan, a global strategy to fight poverty, disease, and corruption, and promote reconciliation between races?

No, the Bible is not a manual for living and for helping the poor in the world. You can get the same guidelines from Confucius or Gandhi or Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen. But these guidelines are not the gospel that Christ has promised to bring you to maturity. It is not enough for Christ to bring his people to salvation and profession of faith through the preaching of the gospel. The ultimate goal is the presentation of his people as complete, perfect, and mature in Christ. This is why his promise stands. He will “sustain you to the end” (1 Cor 1:8), and “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). He will “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13). And he will “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).

The commitment of Christ to bring this perfect maturity to completion is shown in his gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the church. They have served the church together with pastors and teachers who are now serving the church, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

Christ will present “everyone” as mature in Christ, but Paul does not mean “everyone” in the individualistic sense, in a kind of personal relationship with Christ that has no meaning for the church as a whole. Instead, as he says in Ephesians 4:13, individual believers are being brought to mature manhood for the goal of having “a unity of the faith.” Individual Christians constitute a whole body growing together in Christ, “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).

The goal of preaching is not only to rescue individual sinners from their desperate condition in sin. Instead, preaching aims to gather them as an assembly of the Lord, maturing and worshipping together as earthly pilgrims in a heavenly Mount Zion (Heb 12:22; 11:13).

Beloved friends, most of you have listened to preaching in the church for years, some of you even for your whole life. Be mindful that the preaching of the true gospel has brought you into faith in Christ by the working of the Spirit. God’s mighty works of saving his people and reconciling them to him through Christ, have been made known to you through the preaching of God’s Word.

The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 65 is very helpful in saying, “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” As well, we read in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 89, ”The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effective means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, to salvation.”

But the preaching of the gospel does not stop after you believed. It is not only the unsaved who need to hear the atoning death of Christ for their sins. Rather, you who have already believed need to hear the gospel of salvation, the gospel of walking faithfully with Christ through the Spirit, and the gospel of Christ presenting you holy and blameless on the last day.

This is because spiritual maturity does not come to you by preaching role models, guidelines for living, and “becoming a better you.” It comes by the preaching of the gospel of Christ, and praying that the Holy Spirit will not merely guide you, but remind you of God’s law, and empower you to live holy and blameless lives according to God’s will.

How will you attain this spiritual maturity in Christ? By being a lone ranger Christian, and by daily quiet times at home? No, hardly. You are brought individually to Christ, but you are perfected daily into his image through his whole body, the church, who together are growing in unity in maturity.