By Simon Jooste
The piety of God’s Old Testament people revolved around public worship, and in the context of covenant. Whether in the tabernacle, temple or in exile, the Jews drew their strength from the official and public ministry of the Word: the preaching, the sacraments and the sacrifices (see: generally the first five books of the Bible and Psalms 42-43). God’s auditory Word of promise was palpably sealed to his people in blood, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This, God’s way of sustaining his people, has continued under the New Covenant sealed in Christ’s blood. With the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, the meeting place between God and his people is no longer confined to a particular building (such as the temple) or a geographic locality (such as Jerusalem), but to where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus: the church scattered at worship throughout the earth (Matt. 18:20; 28:16-20). With the fullness of revelation that has come in Christ, it has been God’s pleasure to continue serving his people through the mediation of an ambassador on earth (Heb.1:1-4).
The OT priest is now replaced with a pastor whose vocation it is to call God’s people to public worship every Lord’s Day (1 Tim. 3; 5:17). Wherever this call is extended by duly ordained minister serving in a true church, the body of Christ is made manifest to the world (Rom. 10:14-17; Eph. 4:1-16). While no longer identified or defined by ethnicity, artifice or place, the church is nevertheless still marked out by the physicality and mediation of a preacher and sacraments. Since the ascension of our incarnate Lord Jesus, God continues to condescend to his people with gifts from glory in the folly of proclamation, water, bread and wine (Rom. 12:3-8).
Preaching as the chief mark of a true church
The preached Word was primary to the ministry of Christ on earth and to the early church (Matt. 4:17; Ac. 2:14-36; Rom. 10:15-17; Cor. 1:17). It is in fact the decisive mark of a true church. Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Rom. 10; Belgic Confession (BC 29); cf. Heidelberg Catechism (HC) Q/A 65; Horton 2011:752). Proclamation creates a new state of affairs. It creates saints out of sinners. It creates the church out of nothing (John 3:3-5). By virtue of its live-giving and event-generating nature, the Word preached – like baptism and the Lord’s Supper – is in a sense also sacramental.
Preaching is sacramental
In the context of God’s covenant relationship with his people and by the agency of the Spirit, the speech of an ordained preacher becomes the Word (“breath”) of Christ (2 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 10; cf. Second Helvetic Confession, ch.1). Like the new state of affairs created when a commissioned representative speaks words of ratification at a wedding ceremony or in the completion of an international treaty, so too do the words of Christ’s ambassador issue forth new spiritual realities (Ezek. 12:28; 37). Human words are sanctified for divine purposes. Like Christ’s incarnation, the Word proclaimed is a ladder by which God descends to his people (Rom. 10:6-17; cf. Horton 2011:754-55).
Therefore, preaching goes beyond information about sin and grace, law and Gospel. God sees to it that the words ushering forth from the mouth of the preacher effect repentance and faith, death and eternal life (2 Cor. 3:6-18; Heb. 4:12; Isaiah 55:11). In the proclamation of the Word, the sign of preaching by an ordinary called sinner is united to the thing it signifies: Christ crucified and all his benefits (1 Cor. 2:1-2). This saving grace is delivered to the sinner through the organ of the ear. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper confirm this auditory Word to the hands, eyes, mouth and stomach (cf. HC Q/A 65). In short: “The preached Word is neither God’s essence nor merely a human witness but God’s energetic activity of judging and justifying” (Horton 2011:758).
The “visible” Word of the sacraments depend upon and guarantee the “invisible” and auditory Word proclaimed. Both the preached Word and the sacraments administered give us Christ and him crucified, but in different and important ways. Words and signs together constitute an act of covenant-making (Horton 2011:778). Both means put the sinner on the receiving end of God’s saving grace. Both Word and sacrament drive the sinner out of himself, unlike the “inner word” of self-talk or the private acts of piety that can so easily become a flight upward to God through “inner effort” (Horton 2011:760-1).
Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.