Monday, March 10, 2014

Jesus as Preacher

  Life of Christ 40

         Jesus was an amazing preacher. In an era in which men knew the Torah very well, having studied it full time in school from the age of 10, He knew His better. Every good preacher draws on a substantial knowledge of what makes people tick, and Jesus knew what was in man (John 2.25) better than anyone else ever has. I've heard some mighty orators in my day whose sermons left me cold simply because I didn't think they loved the people to whom they were preaching. Jesus never had that problem; His life was marked by compassion. Some preachers tiptoe through the tulips. Jesus, on the other hand, exhibited a holy boldness that feared no man, ever. Additionally, the power in a sermon comes from the life of the preacher and the outflow of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus lived a perfect life and the Spirit was given unto Him without measure (John 3.34). But aside from all of these aspects, one of the reasons Jesus was so strikingly different in His preaching ministry from other men of His own generation was His willingness to be authoritative in His preaching.
          The custom of the rabbis of His day was to do little more than quote a bunch of previous rabbis in order to lend authority to their scriptural interpretation and application. Only rarely did they ever express their own exposition forcefully. In fact, there are extant quotes in the rabbinical literature of the day in which certain rabbis assert with pride that they never had anything original to say. In a sense, there is wisdom here, for a preacher who always says things no one else has ever said is probably preaching error, if not outright heresy, and there is great profit to be gained by gleaning the studies of those who have gone before us. But the rabbis, as was their wont, took a good concept to a rather awful extreme. In the Jewish mind, the rabbi was tied to tradition very tightly. In fact, the rabbi's very credentials were directly tied to which rabbi had taught him, and ever back to another rabbi in a chain that supposedly went all the way back to Moses. This chain, and the weight of its tradition, was to them the safeguard of all good preaching.
          At the same time, there were certainly disputes among various rabbis, each with its own school of thought about a particular doctrine or issue. Thus, not only was the preaching of the day little more than the citing of some other esteemed rabbi, that same preaching often disagreed with another rabbi's teaching. This played out in excruciating detail over the most minute aspects of scriptural instruction. For instance, Edersheim illustrates this very well with the theological disputes in Jesus' day over how to properly say the blessing before a meal:

Bread was regarded as the mainstay of life, without which no entertainment was considered as a meal. Indeed, in a sense it constituted the meal. For, the blessing was spoken over the bread, and this was supposed to cover all the rest of the food that followed, such as the meat, fish, or vegetables - in short, all that made up the dinner, but not the dessert. Similarly, the blessing spoken over the wine included all other kinds of drink. Otherwise it would have been necessary to pronounce a separate benediction over each different article eaten or drunk. He who neglected the prescribed benedictions was regarded as if he had eaten of things dedicated to God, since it was written: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof." Beautiful as this principle is, it degenerated into tedious questions of casuistry. Thus, if one kind of food was eaten as an addition to another, it was settled that the blessing should be spoken only over the principal kind. Again, there are elaborate disputations as to what should be regarded as fruit, and have the corresponding blessing, and how, for example, one blessing should be spoken over the leaves and blossoms, and another over the berries of the caper. Indeed, that bush gave rise to a serious controversy between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai. Another series of elaborate discussions arose, as to to what blessing should be used when a dish consisted of various ingredients, some the product of the earth, others, like honey, derived from the animal world. Such and similar disquisitions, giving rise to endless argument and controversy, busied the minds of the Pharisees and Scribes.

          In an environment like this the preaching not only majored on minors, but unless the rabbi could fence himself in with a billion quotes from other rabbis he could not assert anything forcefully. The end result was sermons that were little more than the setting forth of various sides of an issue, and the reading of long quotations from other rabbis.
          But Jesus was remarkably and noticeably different in His preaching. 'And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes' (Mark 1.22). The classic example of this is found in the greatest sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus often lays out an erroneous interpretation of some key commandment by saying, 'ye have heard that it hath been said' quoting the common rabbinic take of the day. He then contrasts it directly with what God actually meant by that particular commandment using the phrase, 'But I say unto you.' That pattern is repeated six times in that one sermon. Well, where did He get the authority to assert a completely different opinion than the commonly understood one of His day? From the Word of God. He did not go the rabbis or the fathers; He went directly to the source. He quoted Scripture at least 78 times directly the sermons of His that are recorded in the New Testament. This was a habit that the Apostles learned well, as they would quote Scripture directly at least 209 times in their messages.
          We can see, then, how Jesus established a new pattern, indeed, introduced a new paradigm even, into preaching. He untied it from an obsessive reliance on what were essentially commentaries, and retied directly onto the Word of God. I will say again and again this year in this blog that Jesus was a revolutionary, not a reformer, and one of the things He revolutionized was preaching. The difference between Himself and His peers in the ministry was not merely a matter of style, rather it was a fundamental shift regarding the source of sermonic authority. In a day filled with hesitant opinions, differing interpretations, and excessive citations, His was authoritative preaching tied directly to Scripture.
          In the immortal words of a previous pastor of mine, Jack Hyles, the rabbis of Jesus' day were ear tickling, penny pinching, nickel nipping, soft soaping, pink tea and lemonade kinds of preachers delivering wishy washy milk toast kinds of sermons. Jesus, on the other hand, was a barn storming, window rattling, shingle pulling, hell fire and damnation preacher of the type that hearkened back to the Old Testament prophets and their 'Thus saith the Lord.' 'For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (Matthew 7.29).

          No wonder 'the common people heard him gladly' (Mark 12.37)!

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