Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 4:2—“Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season”—is an urgent call for pastoral readiness. We are called to be ready to preach God’s Word regardless of circumstantial convenience. Having walked with chronic daily migraines the past two years, my recent sermon in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 provided me an opportunity to live out this truth and boast in my weakness in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Preaching is cathartic for me. I can meditate on a passage, memorize it, and apply it to the biggest struggles of my life, but when I am forced to process and share those reflections with our local church, the Scriptures pierces the depths of my heart in a different way. My recent sermon taught me three valuable lessons:
1. Preaching is open heart surgery.
The preaching event is a unique act of worship in which we depend on God’s Spirit to empower us as we proclaim His Word. Preaching takes the goal of teaching a step further, from informing minds to transforming hearts. We must not neglect faithful exegesis and understandable explanation, but we should pray and work to the end of our sermon for heart transformation. God is the divine physician who uses His Word to pierce our hearts and remove the cancerous sin within (Psalm 147:3; Matthew 9:12; Hebrews 4:12). Although a scalpel may cut painfully deep, in the hands of a skillful surgeon it can save our lives. But before we prayerfully seek to preach to the hearts of others, our hearts must be worked on first.
2. Go under the knife first.
Colossians 3:16 provides the aim of each local church gathering: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts.” As a pastor, my eyes are drawn to “teaching and admonishing one another,” but out of the four verbs in this verse, only one is an imperative—and it is stated first.
The order and emphasis of this sentence commands us to let the Word of Christ dwell in our hearts before we even think about teaching or admonishing others in it. The worst mistake a preacher can make is to approach a passage exegetically and homiletically but not devotionally and prayerfully. As John Piper writes in Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship, “[Worship] is why the universe exists, why the church exists, why corporate worship exists, and why preaching exists.”
We must approach God’s Word as worshipers primarily (and as preachers secondarily) and ask God’s Spirit to let it work on and dwell in our hearts. Only then, as a former pastor told me, after we plunge the sword of the Spirit into our own hearts and wrench it around will we then be able to pull it out and implore others to do the same.
3. Lay yourself on the operating table.
Worshipful preaching is vulnerable: in expositing God’s Word, my heart is exposed. While this is of great benefit for the preacher, it is also of great benefit for others. This is why the Bible is filled with examples of various saints’ shortcomings, from Peter’s fickleness to Paul’s weakness.
However, there is a prideful propensity to present a polished product. This is why for years I manuscripted my sermons, rehearsed them multiple times, asked pastors for feedback, and watched my own sermon videos each week. But in my experience, the sermons that connect most with people (either in a challenging or encouraging way) are not the ones where I was the most technically sound, but the ones where I was the most human.
It’s difficult to invite your church into the operating room, but when the pulpit becomes the operating table in which God’s people witness Him using His Word to work in our hearts, it compels others to bring their hearts to our great surgeon.
Pastors, lay yourself bare before God’s Word and ask Him to work in your heart for the sake of your soul (before the sake of your sermons). Then and only then will we be able to preach to the hearts of others so that they, too, might find great healing under the scalpel of our great physician. “He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1).