God-Centered Preaching (and Listening)

PreacherPreaching every Sunday morning is tough. It’s tough not just because of the hard preparations that come with it. It’s tough because preachers compete with a lot of messages people hear from Monday to Saturday.

There are social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. We are being fed with a lot of information about the latest trends. Then there’s the rise in “selfies” – easily tempting us to show to others how beautiful we look, how good our life is, how admirable our achievements are.

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We also have TVs, and the most influential thing about TV is not really the programs we watch but the advertisements that are being shown to us over and over again. You are being told to buy what’s good for you, what will make you more beautiful, richer, and more successful.

And even when we listen to other preachers on TV or on the Internet, much of the popular messages we hear are about how to help ourselves (“You can do it! Just believe in yourself!”), make us more happy, successful and prosperous (“Just believe and you will get it!”), and make us feel good about ourselves. A few days ago, a message by Victoria Osteen, Joel Osteen’s wife, went viral, “When you worship, you are not really doing it for God, you are doing it for yourself.”

The kind of messages and teachings that often go viral and become more popular are the kind that tickles our ears, gives us a massage, boosts our ego, entertains us and forget our real problems at least for a time. We like it when we hear things that are more about us. The apostle Paul knew that this time is coming and he warned Timothy and other preachers about it, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4 NLT).

Resolve in preaching

The mandate for Timothy and for me remains the same: “Preach the word of God” (4:2 NLT). How do I do that? Should I give you more of you, that you will feel good about yourself? Should I wrap God’s message into a beautiful package or presentation, to make it more entertaining and attractive? Should I talk more about how to be successful? These are the kinds of questions that we need to wrestle with – not just for pastor-preachers, but for those of you who teach in Sunday School, to parents who teach their kids, to all who share the gospel to others, to those of you who are in counseling. And also for us who sit under the teaching of God’s words, to listeners, to learners. We have a choice to make how we are to listen to God’s Word and what we want to get out of it.

As for me, I resolved to preach the Word as God intended it, not as most people wanted it. Not to preach in such a way that I will get many “likes” but what sinful and broken people really need. Not man-centered preaching, but God-centered preaching. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (ESV).

People in Corinth, being Greeks, value superb skill and wisdom, superiority and excellence in speaking. So not many of them then and us now will like the way Paul presents himself and the gospel message. He said that his presence is “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (v. 3). We like it more when people appear strong, powerful, more authoritative, and confident of themselves – like how most people portray themselves in social media. He also said that his preaching is not “with lofty speech or wisdom” (v. 1). It’s not the kind that you can market and advertise on TV. It’s plain, no gimmicks, no attempt for subtle deception. “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” (v. 4). He does not force them or persuade them by human means. He does not try to manipulate their emotions or persuade them through clever reasoning.

Why, Paul, are you preaching this way? Why preachers today should preach this way? Why you listeners should listen to this kind of preaching? The answer: God is the reason. A preaching event is ultimately about God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – and our life in relationship with him. Let’s look at four elements that differentiate God-centered preaching against man-centered preaching.

God-Centered Preaching

The Glory of God

The first concerns the ultimate goal or end in preaching. Paul said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (v. 1). To be “lofty” (Gk. huperoche) is to be superior or excellent. Paul used it in 1 Timothy 2:2 to refer to people in “high positions.” So he is saying that the ultimate goal in preaching is not to elevate or promote himself or any other person. Paul is saying, citing Jeremiah 9:23-24, that no man has the right to boast in his wisdom or strength or riches, but “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31). Our ultimate goal in preaching, then, is to promote God’s glory – to make him known, so that people will worship him. At the end of my sermons, some people would tell my mother, “Your son is very good, very excellent in preaching.” The self-centered in me likes to hear it. But a part of me grieves. I want people to be able to say at the end, “Oh, God is so great, so glorious, so good, so gracious. Thank you for pointing that out to us.”

To preach is to proclaim – to declare openly – “the testimony of God” (v. 1). “Testimony” is from the word musterion where we get the word “mystery.” This refers to the plan of God, previously hidden but now revealed, unveiled for all people to see. The Bible then is the Story of God. It is primarily about him, his plans, his purposes, his power. He is the Hero, not us. Our goal in preaching this Word is to preach the God who is the central character of this Word. To focus on man is to misuse the Word of God.

Pastor Bernie van Eyk reminds us, “The Bible is fundamentally a book about God. This might come as a surprise to some. Because of our natural bent toward self, we tend to think that the Bible is a book about us. It is not. It is, from beginning to end, a book about God.” (Bernie van Eyk, “God-Centered Preaching”). He also cited Piper’s approach to God-centeredness in preaching:

People are starving for the greatness of God, but most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Thus preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: ‘Show me your glory.’

To me and all preachers like me, remember and don’t ever forget that our ultimate aim in preaching is the glory of God, to give our people more of God, not more of us or more of themselves. May we resolve to preach like John the Baptist, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less” (John 3:30 NLT). To all of you who listen, come here every Sunday not to feel good about yourself, but to see the glory of your God in the preaching of his Word. If mundane tasks as eating and drinking is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), how much more our feeding from his Word!

The Cross of the Son of God

The glory of God is more clearly seen in “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4 ESV). So this is the second element of God-centered preaching – the cross of the Son of God. God-centered preaching is Christ-centered, cross-centered, gospel-centered. I cannot talk about God without talking about Jesus. This is Paul’s resolve in preaching, “For I decided (NIV, “resolved”) to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2 ESV). He said that not that he doesn’t care to know his people. But because Jesus is his all-consuming passion. Jesus and his gospel was the focus not just of his preaching, but all of his life: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14); “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8).

Paul believes that we need Jesus and his gospel as the cure to all our sins, our pains, and our brokenness. We don’t need more tips how to live life well, more pep talk to try harder. We need Jesus. That’s why Paul said, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5 NIV); “He is the one we proclaim” (Col 1:28 NIV). The church in Corinth has a lot of problems – divisions, conflicts, suing other Christians in court, incest, sexual immorality, prostitution, adultery, disorder in worship and faulty doctrines. How did he begin tackling this problem? Did he tell them, “Listen to me, this is what you are going to do…” No! He first talked about Jesus. And he talked about Jesus from beginning to end.

Consider just chapter 1: “the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4 ESV); “the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you” (1:6); “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7); “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9); “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:10); “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18); “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24); “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30).

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! It’s all about Jesus! So, preachers, point people to Christ. When you talk about God, tell them how it is also true of Jesus. When you talk about sin, tell them that the ultimate solution is Jesus. When you talk about suffering, tell them of the hope we have in Jesus. When you talk about Christian life, tell them that the focus is not on the Christian but on Christ, not on our works but on Jesus’ finished work on the cross.

One afternoon, while having coffee with two other pastors of another church, one of them asked, “How are you going to counsel or help a lesbian?” The other said, and I agree, “Jesus!” Is that it? Yes, it is! When you are satisfied in Jesus, you will not seek satisfaction from your girlfriend or from anyone else. When you are secured in Jesus, you will not seek security in other people or in material possessions. When you see your significance in Jesus, you will not tie your significance to how much money you have, how beautiful you look, and how great your accomplishments are.

Preaching is not about helping people to try harder, but helping people to trust in Jesus. To all of you who listen, then, don’t ask first, “What do I need to do to fix this?” Ask first, “What did Jesus, in his grace, already accomplished for me?”

The Power of the Spirit of God

I am not saying that we must not do anything, but rather our doing must be an overflow of his grace in us and our new identity in Jesus. And when we do what God requires us to do in his Word, we do it not according to our own way and in our own strength. That’s why Paul’s preaching is not with “impressive wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1 NLT), not “using clever and persuasive speeches” (v. 4 NLT). He believes that the power he needs in preaching the Word, the power that can really change the hearts of the people, does not depend on his skill or methodology, but on the Spirit of God. This is the third element in God-centered preaching, the power of the Spirit of God. Paul’s preaching is “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4 ESV); “I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit” (NLT).

One major temptation in preaching that I struggle against over and over again is the temptation to rely on my self. I was trained in seminary, so I can do it. I prepared so hard for this, so I can do it. I am doing this for so many years now, so I can do it. I think I’m quite good at it, so I can do it. But what God wants me to realize is that without the power of the Spirit of God at work in me, I can’t do it. Maybe I can still do it, but it will be more of a performance than preaching that glorifies God. You will not have a sense of the pervasive presence of God in this place apart from the Spirit’s presence. You will not feel the transforming power of God in your hearts for you to be like Jesus without the Spirit’s work (2 Cor. 3:18). So I always have to rely on the Spirit for power to accomplish God’s purposes in this church.

This is one crucial difference between God-centered preaching and the ordinary messages we hear everyday. Every preaching event is a God-event. God himself is coming down in this place, speaking to us. God makes his presence felt. We get more of his love as we sit and listen. We feel God’s scalpel performing a much-needed surgery in our wounded hearts. At times it will be painful, but what we need is not a massage or a therapy. We need healing. Only the Spirit can do that. And he will. So, come every Sunday with that eager expectation of the presence and the power of God.

The Faith of the People of God

Preaching is about God – the glory of God, the cross of Jesus, the power of the Spirit. And as we enter into that relationship with God Three-in-One, something profound is happening in our souls. That’s the fourth element in God-centered preaching, the result of it is that the faith of the people of God is strengthened, and for some it may be the beginning of their faith in Jesus. This is transformation, we grow in faith in God as we know him more, we grow in Christ-likeness as we look to him more and more, we grow more in reliance on the Spirit. This can only be accomplished by God-centered preaching. This is Paul’s intended result for the Corinthian believers, ”that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5 ESV). In another place, he stated his purpose in preaching Christ his way, “that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). When we “speak the truth in love,” we are “growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

I am committed to God-centered preaching because I love you. I really do. When I don’t preach this way, I am doing you a disservice. You may feel good at a time, but I will be hurting your soul badly. Man-centered preaching tells you to look at yourself, believe in yourself, just try harder by yourself. And if your faith is in yourself, your life will be fickle, unstable, and will end in you not fully realizing the purpose for which God has made you. It will be a tragedy.

So I appeal to all who will preach and teach his Word, love God’s people. Aim to strengthen their faith in Jesus. And to all of you, if you care for your heart, the good of your soul, your relationship with God, then come and sit under the preaching of the Word. For your own sake, yes, but ultimately, for the glory of God. The two (your satisfaction and God’s glory) are not at odds. That’s why John Piper would often say, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Or when our faith is strengthened and when we become more and more like his Son Jesus.

Will you come and listen?

Man-centered preaching is focused on giving you more of you. God, if ever mentioned, is marginalized or used only as a means to an end. It is about self-glory by self-achievement through self-power. God-centered preaching, on the other hand, is God-glorifying, Christ-focused, Spirit-empowered, faith-strengthening preaching. And I resolved to preach with these God-centered convictions. You can’t sway me to do otherwise. I will not result to gimmicks or entertainment just to fill this place with a lot of people. I would rather have in this room a hundred people full of the presence of God than a thousand people who are full of themselves.

How about you? If you are hungry for God, if you feel that that’s what’s lacking in your life, that you want more of God, then come every Sunday and listen to God’s Word. Then, invite others to come. Tell them, “You may not like what you will hear. But I guarantee you, it is what you need. Now and for eternity. So, will you come and listen with me?”


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