The goal of true preaching is to ensure that the audience leaves having heard Jesus. Not jokes. Not self-help tips. But Jesus—and not just about Jesus, either, but Jesus Himself! “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14). As those who come to listen to a sermon, we should desire to hear no voice but that of Christ Himself. In eighteenth-century Scotland, a woman was blessed to have Rev. Ebenezer Erskine come to her church as a guest preacher. She was so moved by his preaching that the next week she visited his parish to hear him again. However, she was rather disappointed by the message that occasion, and so—with a brazenness that makes this pastor shudder—she asked him why one week his message seemed so rich and the next it seemed to fall flat. Erskine replied, “Madam, the reason is this—last Sabbath you went to hear Jesus Christ; but today, you have come to hear Ebenezer Erskine.”
2. He was evangelistic in His preaching. At the end of Acts 9:20, we are told in more detail what exactly Saul was saying about Jesus: He was the Son of God. He was telling the Jews gathered in the synagogue that the man Jesus of Nazareth was no lunatic; He was who He claimed to be. Saul “confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 9:22).
That means that Saul didn’t just go to groups that already agreed with his message, affirming their faith and providing practical application for daily living. That wouldn’t be wrong, and in fact it is very much needed. But real preaching is not only concerned with building up believers. It is equally concerned with convincing and converting unbelievers. It is apologetic, giving reasons and proofs. It exhorts people who believe in Christ to keep on believing, and it shows people who don’t believe in Christ what they are missing—urging them to come in. Real preaching proves that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited Yes and Amen to all of God’s good promises. Unless we are convinced of that, we are lost in our sins.
3. He preached in the power of God. Everything we have said up to this point would in a sense be meaningless or even impossible if it was not done in a dependence on God’s power. We are told twice over in Acts 9 that what made Saul’s early sermons so effective had nothing to do with him at all, but everything to do with the God through whom He was preaching. In verse 27, Barnabas testifies “how at Damascus [Saul] had preached boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27, emphasis added). In verse 28, we read that “he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28, emphasis added). The first thing we saw about Saul’s preaching is that he preached the name of Jesus. Now we are told that he preached in the name of Jesus, a way of saying that he preached in the power and authority of the One who had commissioned Him. His preaching was dependent on God, as true preaching always is. Again, we can fast-forward and read how Paul would later distill this in one of his epistles: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4–5). Without the Spirit at work, it doesn’t matter the gifting of the minister or the preacher—it will be for naught.
Rev. Eric J. Alexander has written a wonderful hymn on the theme of preaching, “Almighty God, We Come to You.” Each stanza builds on the previous as to the treasures that are to be had when God’s Word is faithfully exposited to His people. Yet the highlight of the hymn is the refrain, which captures what made Saul’s ministry so effective and provides for each parishioner and preacher a fitting prayer: “Let the anointing Spirit come and touch the lips that preach Your name.”