Consider what Peter wrote in 1Peter 2:2, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” What is this pure spiritual milk? It is the gospel preached. Consider how Peter began his letter. He greets his hearers (the letter would have been read out loud in the congregation of God’s people) and states that those who have salvation have been born again to a living hope by God the Father through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and that this is what they rejoice in despite their various trials (1Peter 1:3-9). Then he wrote that the prophets (of the Old Testament) were serving this salvation to God’s church. Note what Peter wrote in 1:12: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (italics mine). The words in italics illumine us to a vital point. The power of God for salvation that brings one into the kingdom for the first time (conversion) also purifies the Christian throughout their life. This is why Paul wanted to preach the gospel to those in Rome who were already Christians. It is why Peter went on in 1Peter to write the following: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’
Now. if Peter had stopped right there we would truly have a most exalted view of the Scriptures, the word of God written, and we would have an exalted view of the word of God made flesh, Jesus. But Peter did not stop there. He said one more thing—“And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (italics mine). Again, we have emphasized not merely the written word of God, but the preached word of God.
Paul emphasized these same points by telling Timothy what Scripture is—God-breathed (2Tim. 3:16). And what does God accomplish through his breath or mouth or word? He creates, interprets or judges, destroys and redeems. Paul next explained what God’s word was good for—teaching, reproof, rebuke and the training in righteousness, so that the man of God would be thoroughly equipped for every good work. This is why Paul lays upon Timothy a most solemn charge: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2Tim. 4:1-2). Here we see not only the emphasis on preaching the word of God, but also that the apostles recognized that the authority that they possessed to preach God’s word would be passed on to others through the Holy Spirit and thereby the preached word, just as all the other gifts of God’s Spirit were given to God’s people through the preached word of God.
The Church, Preaching, God’s Spirit and His Gifts
Acts 6:1-7; 1Corinthians 12:1-31; Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:7-16; 1Tim. 3:1-13; 5:17-18; Titus 1:5-9; 1Peter 5:1-5 all address the topic of spiritual gifts in various ways. What is affirmed through these texts, and emphasized by each in various ways is the unitary and organic character of the church. After all, the church is the body of Christ or the bride of Christ. While it is true that inanimate objects are used as metaphors for the church, such as stones and a house (1Peter 2:4-5), it is noteworthy that in this same text those stones are referred to as living stones, and the house is a spiritual one in which God’s people are being built up to be a holy priesthood. In stating that God’s people are being built up, Peter affirmed that something or someone was acting upon them. What is this thing acting upon them? It is God’s word preached as we already saw from 1Peter 1:22-25. In 1Cor. 12:28 Paul lists some spiritual gifts. Without getting sidetracked on the question of whether they are all operative today in the exact same way they were during the apostolic age, let me alert your attention to the order that Paul presents. We find a similar order in Ephesians 4:11. First, is apostles, then prophets (Here there is some debate over whether this refers to “preachers” in general, or those with the supernatural ability to predict the future. My point does not mandate an answer to the question.). 1Cor. 12 lists teachers third, while in Ephesians he mentions evangelists, then shepherds, or pastors, and then teachers. What we need to recognize is what Paul says about the relationship of these works to the growth and health of the church.
Paul affirms in 1Cor. 12:4-11 that all the gifts of God’s Spirit are given for the common good of the church according to how God wills. Thus, the individual Christian is never to be the focus of the gifts he or she possesses. The focus is service to others for building them up or strengthening them in the church to the glory of God. In Ephesians Paul makes much the same point, but in the gifts he highlights he places an emphasis on the gifts that emphasize verbal proclamation of God’s word and that “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). What is emphasized in Eph. 4:13-16 is that the Holy Spirit causes the church to mature, to be strengthened through its receiving and knowledge of doctrine that then leads the body of Christ to speak truth to one another and spur one another on to growth. While the emphasis in Ephesians 4 does not exclude quantitative growth the emphasis is on qualitative growth that takes place through God’s word applied by those gifted by God’s Spirit to take that word and proclaim it faithfully.
This emphasis on the preaching and teaching gift in the church is revealed by Paul’s words in 1Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The terms Paul uses for preaching and teaching could also be translated “word” and “doctrine.” Why would Paul distinguish “those who labor in preaching and teaching”? It would seem that it is because such a ministry is the root from which the entire church is created, fed and grows.
The church is shepherded or ruled through preaching and teaching, because it is God’s living and active word that is able to renew our minds that we might be transformed to be like Jesus. In Romans 8:29 Paul says that God is saving his people in order to conform them to the image of his Son, and then in Romans 12:2 Paul uses a modification of this same term for conform to say that the entire Christian life is summarized as each one being transformed by the renewal of their mind. God does this work. Even in Romans 12 Paul’s command to be transformed is a passive imperative. In other words, he is commanding those who already have the power of God’s Spirit to submit themselves to a process that God controls and applies. The building up of Christ’s body is done by those with the authority or Spirit enabled power to do it. In other words, this authority is not highlighting the individual who holds it but rather the Spirit that holds that individual. To honor the office that such a man holds and the function he performs because of that office is to truly honor the Holy Spirit’s entire work of multiplying and maturing the church. The truth that the Spirit apprehends certain men to do this means the church has the responsibility to see that its life centers on or revolves around what the Spirit has gifted those men to do.
This union between the regenerating and renewing work of God in and through his Son and Spirit by the written and preached word of God is also seen in Titus 2:11-14. There we read that the “grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Notice the two things that Paul joins to the term for appear. The grace of God that saves has appeared and it does this by training God’s people to live holy lives, and this is joined to “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” You see, the word of God made flesh who accomplished the redemption, or rescue of sinners from sin, continues to be applied through the written word of God being proclaimed, so that Christ’s bride is prepared for him when he appears a second time. Jesus’ church is being prepared by God’s word for God’s Word. In turn, this is summarized just a few verses later as the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration and renewal (Titus 3:5).
A Picture of God’s Preached Word Regenerating & Renewing
Perhaps the most vivid picture of all this is seen in the Old Testament through the prophet Ezekiel. In the 37th chapter we read of the Valley of Dry Bones over which God called Ezekiel to prophesy. Ezekiel was to say to them, “O, dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.” What will God say to them? “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.” Ezekiel does this, and through a gradual process of his continuing to speak God’s Word the bones come to life (37:7-10). It is an illustration of what God not only did for his people in the Old Testament era, but also what he continued to do for them in the New Testament era culminating in God’s Word becoming flesh, speaking his word to the chosen objects of his mercy and thereby cleansing them, raising them from the spiritual dead, and continuing to nourish them, and thus causing them to abide in his word (John 15:1-17).
Finally, we should note that the apostle John made clear in 2John 9-10 that intimate fellowship with God the Father and Son, and by implication the Holy Spirit, takes place as we abide in the teaching or doctrine of Christ. John’s statement clearly reveals that we cannot set the ongoing verbal proclamation regarding Christ from vibrant, passionate and intimate communion with God. John wrote, “The one who does not abide in the teaching (didache = teaching or authoritative doctrine) of Christ does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching of Christ has the Father and the Son.” But John went a step further. He gave a sobering warning in verses 10-11. “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching (the teaching of Christ, including the truth of verse 9 that he had just written, because it is part of the didache, or teaching) do not receive him into your house (that is, the church) or give him any greeting. For the one who greets him shares in his wicked works.” These are very stern and sobering words. Why would John issue this stern and sobering warning? Because anyone who denies this truth that he had written is denying the very root by which God’s people grow and multiply. To deny this truth and to encourage others to deny it is to disconnect them from the only God ordained means by which they have God. Notice that he did not say that in having the teaching about Christ that they did not have the Son and Father’s teaching or doctrine; he said that in not having their teaching we do not have them.
To deny this truth among confessing Christians is to attempt to displace God at the center of the worship and life of the church and to encourage and facilitate idolatry within the church. It is to seek salvation and growth in Christ through human engineered schemes and methods. It is to establish the very sinister situation that will lead some who were involved in the church to be rejected by God on judgment day, because what they were really doing was nothing more than using the language of Scripture and Christian theology and their own conceptions of good works to express their own self-centered & self-absorbed agendas (Matt. 7:21-23). But those who understand that from God, and through God and to God are all things (Rom. 11:36) and that he alone from beginning to end gets the glory for what takes place in the saving of his people, will exalt not only the Gospel message of Jesus through verbal proclamation, but also recognize and exalt the truth that the Gospel message establishes a Gospel means or method by which God’s people are created, nourished and perfected to do all the good works he has ordained for them to do.
In all this we see that God’s word spoken, written, and made flesh is the source of God’s people and their sustenance. God first births his people by his word and then he grows or matures them by it. Through history God has been bringing his word so that he would accomplish his purposes in his creation. These purposes can be summarized as his covenant blessing and curse. God either rescues us from sin, or condemns us. He accomplishes both by his word through His Spirit. From the very beginning, God was selective regarding to whom he revealed his saving truth. God determined to bless the nations through Abram, who became Abraham. God has always given particular men the authority to declare his truth to others, and God has uniquely blessed through this preaching of his word. God thus founded his people on his word by his Spirit, and God’s people only knew his word as God revealed it to those to whom he chose to reveal it by his Spirit. By doing this, God gave such men an authority that he did not give to everyone. This did not make these men inherently better than others in the kingdom of God; they were still sinners who needed to be saved. Those who are given the inestimable privilege of proclaiming God’s word will always need to be saved by the very word they proclaim; they need God’s mercy and grace like all other sinners. But the authority that God gives these men is the authority to declare to God’s people God’s word. In the Old Covenant era these men were called the prophets. At the beginning of the New Covenant era they were called the apostles. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles first had the authority to verbally declare God’s word and then they wrote it. This was an authority unique to them. This function, and the authority entailed in fulfilling it by writing God’s word, has ceased among God’s people. But the authority to declare God’s word still holds in the church, because the Spirit of God declared through the apostle’s writings that he would gift some to be able to preach and teach God’s word by declaring the meaning of what the apostles wrote.
None of this is to say that the proclamation of God’s word by those gifted by God’s Spirit is all that the church does in its corporate life. God’s Spirit gifts individual Christians to do a variety of necessary works in the church, but he does so through the preached word of God. In other words, what I have been addressing is the root from which all the fruit of all biblically faithful ministries among God’s people is generated and sustained. The argument here has to do with priority of place not whether a variety of ministries can be present among God’s people. Of course a variety of ministries can mark congregations, but the chief root from which all such God-glorifying ministries will ever be generated and sustained is through the preaching of God’s word. Among other things, what the church must guard against are not only people who can have the “appearance of godliness, but deny its power” (2Tim. 3:5), but the activities in a congregation that fit that same description. And, yes, even the preaching done by pastors can fit this description. Yet, the power of godliness is God’s power to convict sinners of their sin and bring them to repentance continuously; this is the gospel’s power for salvation brought through the faithful preaching of God’s word.
In all this we have said nothing of those other means of grace—the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), prayer and the right exercise of church discipline. Yet, strictly speaking, even with these latter means of grace that God has established we see the supremacy of God’s word in that we do not know what these other means of grace are, we do not know how we are to engage in them, nor do we delight in doing so without God’s word and Spirit revealing them to us and equipping us to exercise them. Furthermore, none of this should be taken to mean that there is no benefit from every individual believer reading and studying the bible on their own. Every individual believer ought to be reading and studying the bible on their own, in part, in order to hold accountable the men given the duty to preach and teach it. Still, we need to see that there is a vitally special place for the preaching and teaching of God’s word, because it is first and foremost by that function that God has revealed that he creates, sustains, nourishes and perfects his redeemed covenant people.