Are Sermons Biblical?
by Roj Beaumont 07/07/07
Where are sermons found in the Bible? The truth is, there are no sermons in the Bible. Even the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” is really not a sermon; it is simply but another of our Lord’s teachings. Have you ever questioned the origin of sermons or the effectiveness and usefulness of their existence? Most of Christ’s recorded teachings were instructions for his followers and his disciples as to how they should live and pray. They were not delivered to an assembled audience or congregation. Paul’s teachings are to be found in his letters or Epistles to the “church”. When he attended synagogue he did not give sermons, rather, he always appeared to spend his time in discussions and attempts at persuading believers to do the things Jesus desired of them (Acts 17:2; 18:4; 19:8).
So, does this really matter? After all, shouldn’t it be more about the message and not the method? Read on and you’ll see, the method of presentation is important.
About the 5th century BC the sophist’s method of rhetoric was found to be in widespread use. Rhetoric, simply put, is nothing more than utilizing the art of persuasive speaking. It is a method which emphasizes oratorical skill as being more important than the truth or accuracy of what is being presented. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a passion for this art form; they loved to give persuasive speeches. The oratorical skill of the philosopher or other learned individual could be likened to the glamour of a first rate audio or video production of today wherein the sound and visual format is so impressive that the message can be meaningless or evil, but people still like it and, frequently, even pay to see it. Witness the “thirty second sound bite” used in an attempt to persuade voters that one particular political candidate is better qualified than another.
Another development introduced into the practice of religion shortly after the birth of Christianity was the teaching (and acceptance) of a distinction between the clergy and lay persons. Additionally, there was the introduction of a hierarchical structure to the emerging new “church.” Both of these changes coincided with the conversion, not only of many of those with these oratorical skills, but, also, of those who had become addicted to this form of entertainment. This is confirmed in the second chapter of A Brief History of Preaching, titled, “The Greek Homily.” In that chapter (page 26), Y.Brilioth states: “But most significant of all was the fact that preaching inherited the legacy of ancient rhetoric.”
In contrast to this, a close examination of historical documents reveals the true biblical Christian message has always been communicated as a two-way conversation. Christ and the Apostles taught the God-fearing Israelites; they did not preach to them. The reason Paul discussed things with and argued with the Jews in the synagogue was because they had a common ground for discussion; their belief system was rooted in the Old Testament with the Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.) already accepted by them as the inspired word of God. Preaching, as such, was reserved for use with the “Gentile” or unbeliever who had little, if anything, in common with the Apostles upon which a discussion could be based. They were pagans; they worshiped false gods.
As stated by Frank Viola in Pagan Christianity (page 83) “The sermon became the elitist privilege of church officials, particularly the bishops. Such people had to be educated in the schools of rhetoric [emphasis by the author] to learn how to speak. Without such education, a Christian was not permitted to speak to God’s people.” Sermons once again came to the fore during the Middle Ages when the only educated person in the village was the priest. As a result, sermons fully evolved into a one-way lecture tool since it was rare that any in the congregation had the ability, let alone the knowledge, to discuss the content of most sermons. Additionally, no one else had access to a Bible and, even if they had, they would not have been able to read it. So, who was in a position to challenge what came forth from the pulpit?
Things have obviously changed somewhat since then, yet, these days, the tradition embodied in the form of a sermon still exists. Notably, the vast majority of sermons are delivered by people who obtained a college degree whereby they learned how to write and present sermons. Most of the rest of the sermons are from their prospective protégées—people trained in their churches or trained by reading books written by the “Christian elite.” It is, sadly, only a minority of instances where God’s Spirit may even get a chance to be present in the educational process.
Returning to Paul, we can easily discern that Paul distanced himself from this type of environment consisting mostly of oratory entertainment. This is evidenced in the following scriptures:
For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect (1Cor 1:17 ).’
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness (1Cor 1:22 -23),
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God (1Cor 2;1).’
And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1Cor 2:4).
Typically, the sermon is the main component of a worship session these days. Ostensibly, the reason most Christians attend church is to learn about spiritual things via the medium of the sermon. Frequently, it is the same individual who presents the sermon, usually the pastor, week after week, after week. Participation on the part of the congregation is typically minimal. Interaction and dialogue with the congregants is non-existent; they are content to be passively listening to a monologue. Visual aids given to illustrate or emphasise points, as should be the case in most all teaching, are a rare exception at best.
What do we find in the Bible record discussing what happened when Christians met? Variety, and even lively participation, seem to be evident since, frequently, we find instructions calling for the need to be more orderly:
…Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification (1Cor 14:26 ).
Let all things be done decently and in order (1Cor 14:40 ).
But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent (1Cor 14:30 ).
These things are alien to the scenario of most church services today. Teaching was paramount during the centuries immediately following Christ’s presence on earth. The word “teaching” in the New Testament is from the Greek word didasko (Strong’s #1321). Thayer’s explanation of the worddidasko states it means: “to hold discourse with others in order to instruct them, deliver didactic discourses.” Didactic means to instruct, but the definition of a discourse is to talk, converse, or to hold forth in speech or writing. So teaching is always a two-way process, involving interaction with others.
The question-answer process acted out in schools is a typical example of this. Pupils have interaction with a teacher. Frequently, students ask questions when information is not clear or it needs reiteration. Indeed, it is thought by experts that the question and answer format helps not only the asker of the questions, but other students as well. The final instructions Jesus gave to His followers is to teach and not to preach: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them…’ (Matt 28:19).
For indeed because of the time, you ought to be teachers, [not preachers.] You have need that one teach you again what are the first principles of the oracles of God. And you have become in need of milk, and not of solid food [which is to teach, notpreach] (Heb 5:12 )
So it appears we are to develop the ability to teach others. Since congregations are mainly “preached to” in a sermon format, this is quite possibly a difficult assignment because most people learn by example. “But theservant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle to all, apt to teach, patient” (2Tim 2:24 ). How on earth can Christians ever qualify to be teachers when:
1. Most “ministers” seemingly haven’t a clue that there is a distinct difference between teaching and preaching.
2. The ministry as a whole insists on using the format of preaching a sermon; i.e., the presenting of a formal speech to a passive congregation and for a fixed period of time each Sabbath or Sunday.
3. People, in this case professing Christians, learn by example and unfortunately, in all but just a few cases, the only example they have to follow is monologue preaching, which by the Biblical definition, is not teaching, and yet we are taught by scripture to become teachers and not preachers!
4. Preaching and the associated inactive listening brought on by it each week results in dead and dying congregations. It results in a lack of drive, initiative, vigour and energy on the parts of both the congregation and its leadership. Do you recognize that this is the complete antithesis of what the early Christians were taught they should be doing? The early Christians did not have their “first love” drained off by having to inactively listen to hour long monotone sermons as their main, and often only, spiritual nourishment each and every week. This appears to be the case with much of the present generation. We believers (those of us who call ourselves Christians) should be the most excited, energetic, enthusiastic, and lively people on earth! But we are not! Indeed, we are far from this, if we take the literal understanding of what the Bible says about the church. Almost without exception, I believe that people much prefer being involved as opposed to being seemingly ignored.
5. Most ministers seem to lack an empathy or understanding of what it must feel like to have to just listen for up to an hour, week after week, in complete silence when many in the congregation may have one or more of the following several thoughts:
They have heard similar messages many, many times over the years and the information given is rarely anything new to them.
b. They disagree and would like to discuss or point out a difference of opinion - or at the very least, correct something that is inadvertently said that is incorrect or poorly explained.
c. They, on occasions, don’t understand what is said and by the time the speaker has finished they will have forgotten the point they previously didn’t understand and any question they might have asked is lost.
d. On many issues, such as Christian Living, they have personal examples that far exceed the speaker’s example in their value and relevance. Yet, they are forced by tradition to remain silently frustrated when they know the rest of the congregation would benefit greatly from hearing their own example or story.
e. They are more knowledgeable than the presenter about some or all of the things mentioned in the sermon, yet cannot help the speaker in amplifying or adding to the message in any way.
The word “Sermon” does not appear in any accurate translation of the Bible. The New Jerusalem Bible uses it one time in Acts 20:7, but it is a poor translation derived from the Greek dialegomai, which means “dispute” or “reason”. It is the very root of this word from which we get our word “dialog”.
Apparently, Augustine was the first to give Matthew 5-7 the title “Sermon on the Mount”—in his book The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, in 395 A.D. Indeed, “Sermon on the Mount” has only been a common title for this passage since the 16th Century.
So let us see into what really happened there. Matthew, Chapter 5, begins telling how Jesus saw the crowds and so off he went up the mountainside and sat down with his disciples and taught them. The crowds must have sought Him out and come to Him as they are only mentioned toward the very end of the chapter (Matt 7:28 -29). Later, in Chapter 8, we learn that he talked to the people and healed them afterward. You can read all of chapters 5 through 7 in about 20 minutes. Jesus wasn’t in a pulpit, or on a raised platform behind a podium, but sat down outside in the open air. So where on earth do we get the “sermon” from?
Sermons usually fail to get beyond the level of simply disseminating information, good, bad or otherwise. Those giving the sermon fail to learn from those in a silent congregation who, in turn, are unable to question, ask for further explanation, clarification, or more information concerning anything that is presented. Those listening to the sermon are therefore limited to the experiences of just one individual who by his very presence at the front implies that he is the “last word” on points of doctrine or Christian living, compared with those “below” him, the recipients of the sermon experience. When the issue of advance publication of sermon titles arises, some preachers give obscure titles or no titles at all, lest people decide, perhaps, to skip a sermon that they know they do not want to hear!
Think about this! Together, the brethren dwarf the pastor in their totality of life’s experiences. Yet, they are precluded from sharing them with everyone because of this completely unbiblical method of teaching which precludes interaction. By studying John’s Gospel, one can easily come to understand Christ’s technique; it is one of complete interaction. John never says that Jesus preached to anyone, and especially, He didn’t preach to the disciples or any of his believers. It is a matter of fact that the word “preach” or any of its derivatives such as “preacher”, “preached” or “preaching” never even occur in John’s gospel. So, how then, can anyone, particularly a “minister,” justify preaching “sermons” near an hour long each and every week?
Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ (1Cor 11:1)
Jesus always taught them. He allowed for and encouraged feedback from his followers. More often than not, as is found frequently in the book of John, when Jesus first begins speaking, Scripture states: “Jesus answered...”. At my last count, this happened 18 times in John’s gospel. To me, this simply reflects how often He is responding to questions - often when many people are present, as in the Temple . This suggests to me that there was a high level of interactivity between Jesus and the people He spoke to. This contrasts with the complete absence of interactivity when sermons are given today. Reading through all the times he spoke to others - even in the temple or in one of the synagogues - there is only one occasion in the Book of John when no one spoke back to him in a response of some sort. That was at a brief meeting after his resurrection (no doubt because of their surprise at seeing him again.) It appears to me to be logical and sensible that if He wished any of His followers to be preachers rather than teachers, He would have provided examples of this for us to follow.
What about the other Gospels? Are they consistent with what I have described can be found in John? In Matthew, I found 12 examples where Jesus began His teaching by first answering a question. For example, the whole of Matthew 24 and 25 is a reply to questions posed in chapter 24. And, again, please note that they all sat on the slopes of the Mount of Olives , over looking Jerusalem . Additionally, I found another 7 examples where He actually answered questions by leaving them with a question.
I would guess that Jesus’ style never changed much. When he was 12, “they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46 ). Hence, it follows: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Not only that, I found only 2 examples where he seemed to have begun his teaching without prompting from the crowds, the scribes, the Pharisees or his disciples. So to me, just looking at these inspired accounts of what took place leaves me with the impression that, at the very most, less than a tenth of His teachings as recorded in Matthew could possibly have been regarded as non-interactive. To me, this is inadequate proof that lecturing or sermonizing was the norm and that we should be copying or emulating this format. Rather, we should be doing as Christ and His disciples were doing:
“…and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1Pet 3:15)
How on earth can this [fulfillment of the above scripture] be attained by a gagged, passive, and muted congregation that never gets any chance to practice or experience doing it?
I believe that I have made my case that the unscriptural practice of giving sermons each week is generally ineffective and is simply being perpetuated out of a long standing, unchallenged, tradition established a thousand and several hundreds of years back. It is certainly not the preaching to be found in either the Old or New Testament. There is certainly no indication that Old Testament prophets or priests gave speeches regularly to anyone. Preaching, back then, was infrequent and offered up only in an occasional, flexible, and, more often than not, spontaneous situation. And, then, what do we find in the New Testament? We find that Jesus both taught and preached (Matt 11:1). In this instance we are certain that this is the case because this passage uses two different Greek words meaning two different things. In spite of this passage, we also find that there is no evidence at all of Jesus preaching to His followers or disciples. In addition, we know that all of His utterances were spontaneous, informal, unplanned and unprepared, although, surely, the spirit within Him guided Him. His teachings never mirrored the “one way” preaching we find today.
Jesus taught the truth in His way. A way I believe should be emulated even today: answering questions in public, without preparation, where everyone hears. Being able to answer spontaneous questions shows that a teacher is speaking from his heart—not from well-reasoned, deceptive arguments. This is illustrated in a most wonderful fashion in Matthew 22:15-46. While the entire passage offers us several great lessons, we extract the verses that clearly demonstrate Christ’s ability to answer their questions immediately, and their inability to answer his:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying,… 22 When they had heard these [Jesus’] words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. 23 The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him,… 29 Jesus answered and said to them,… 33And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. 34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees,… 41While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,… 46 And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore (Matt 22:15-34, 41, 46).
Each member of the family of believers talked about in the New Testament participated in the ministry of God’s Word. Variety was encouraged and expected. Admonishment by the elders was extemporaneous and without the fancy oratorical techniques of the Greco-Roman culture. Their “preaching” provided for interruptions and feedback. Presently, we have diminished ourselves to a state of giving the Pastor (or, perhaps someone he selects) an opportunity to speak for an hour completely unchallenged, giving the unsaid impression that what is said is ex-cathedra or beyond question. In our modern times it seems as if the pastor has replaced the Pope! Shouldn’t he be more of a facilitator than a dictator of how we should be conducting our spiritual lives?
The Christian message is an intensely practical one, one of change. However, the sermon, which is often merely that of a “professional performance,” is the exact opposite and, most often, fails to produce change, rather only veiled condemnation. The positive effects, if any, fleeting on the mind at best, are virtually extinguished by the closing prayer which frequently follows, shortly, seemingly putting a lid on spiritual matters in order that now, “we can get on with our living.”
In conclusion, let me restate that the opposite occurs after a “message,” for a message contains opportunity for mutual interaction and participation. Members are stimulated to think and add their own experiences and thoughts. Unfortunately, most congregations can never experience this since the sermon is held sacrosanct and is considered beyond criticism. It is an end in and of itself, a “sacred cow” of Protestant liturgy and tradition. Most Christian clergy, particularly those who fear loss of control, power, and influence, ignore the biblical examples of the New Testament Church, which I have shown to be one of vigour and participation. God’s Spirit is such that it produces dynamic actions and results such as I have discussed that are impossible to achieve with the method of sermon. And, yet today, the method of sermon continues to smother. If the Bible is to be our final authority in matters of doctrine, why not make it so in matters of practice also? The benefits of allowing God’s Holy Spirit an opportunity to work might just prove to be mind-boggling!
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