Many churches are abandoning thoughtful, Bible-based sermons because they feel they don’t speak to the culture. So what does? TED talks. You’ve likely seen some of these presentations, or at least clips from them: a recognized authority on a subject stands on an empty stage; the auditorium is darkly lit; perhaps there is a screen behind the speaker (there is certainly the iconic red-lighted TED logo somewhere on stage). The expert walks around casually and shares fascinating insights about his or her field to an enraptured audience. People have analyzed these talks. What makes them so popular and engaging? The presentation is sleek, for one. The graphics are professionally done, and the information on the screen is almost always conveyed through images, not text. The time limit is another factor. No TED talk is permitted to be longer than eighteen minutes. This not only helps hook an audience of rising millennials and generation Z’s, with their notoriously short attention spans, but “it’s also the perfect length if you want your message to go viral.”1

It’s no wonder that solid, in-depth preaching is falling by the wayside if the goal is now sleek presentation and viral potential. Maybe we need to take a cue from the scientists and sociologists who have determined the perfect presentation model for our twenty-first-century audience. Maybe we need shorter sermons and more pictures. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s another way. My conviction is that if we knew what was actually happening in truly biblical, Spirit-wrought preaching, we would feel much differently about sermons. We would approach preaching in an entirely different manner. So, what is happening in the sermon? Let me suggest this answer: by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Himself speaks through His ordained servant, saving sinners by the spoken word to the glory of God.

This simple but important understanding of preaching is backed up by Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1, where he writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 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. . . . For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:17–18, 21). Let’s unpack what we find in these verses to better understand what exactly goes on in worship when preaching takes place.

A Sending Christ

The first thing Paul says is that he preaches because he has been commissioned to do so by Jesus Christ Himself. “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). Being sent by Christ is fundamental to what it means to be an Apostle. Apostle comes from the verb apostellō, which means “to send a message, ” so an Apostle is literally one who is sent to speak. In New Testament terms more specifically, an Apostle is one who is sent by Christ to speak on His behalf. Jesus says as much to His disciples in John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” So, it should come as no surprise to us that Paul says he has been sent by Christ to preach.

True preaching doesn’t present the preacher; it presents the sending Christ.

While preachers today are not sent personally by Jesus Christ as the Apostles were, the New Testament understanding is that all preachers at any time will be sent in the name of Christ—that is, to represent Him. Julius Kim explains that “one of the primary images used to convey the identity of a preacher [in the New Testament] is the herald. . . . The herald became the voice of the king. Though the words that he spoke came from his own mouth, the words represented another, more powerful one, whose words had authority.”2

This is how we must view preaching today. A preacher is one who represents another. He is heralding a message from the great King, Christ Jesus. It’s the Lord’s message we are hearing, and no one else’s. The message belongs so intimately to Christ that it is as though He were the One in the pulpit. According to J.I. Packer, the effectiveness of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ ministry was his ability to let Christ speak in the sermon. Packer said that in his preaching it was as if Lloyd-Jones “slips out of the picture and leaves us with the God whom he would have us know.”3 True preaching doesn’t present the preacher; it presents the sending Christ.

A Simple Message

Paul also makes a point to say that Christ has sent him to preach a very simple message. He doesn’t come to preach “with words of eloquent wisdom” or cleverness of speech. Why does Paul make this comment? In Hellenistic Greek culture, there was a preoccupation with gifted storytellers and rhetoricians who could capture an audience’s attention. Put more bluntly, though, Paul says this because he knows people often like the personality of the preacher more than they like his message.

If preaching were about the preacher’s skill, abilities, and charm, the cross would be emptied of its power. It’s not that the cross would suddenly become powerless but rather that people would not be seeing the power of the cross at all. Or put another way, the herald would be obscuring the view of the King who sent him. When preaching becomes about entertaining jokes, quaint illustrations, feel-good stories, or self-help tips, Christ is no longer seen. And He is no longer seen because He certainly is not sending that kind of preacher. It is a simple message that ensures we see and know the sending Christ. And what is the content of this simple message? “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

A Saving Power

Because the simple message reveals the life-giving Christ, Paul can say with confidence that preaching has a saving power. Calvin paraphrases 1 Corinthians 1:18 as follows: “The preaching of the cross, as having nothing of human wisdom to recommend it to esteem, is reckoned foolishness by them that perish; in our view, notwithstanding, the wisdom of God clearly shines forth in it.”4 While to unbelievers it seems like utter nonsense, to those who recognize it as God’s wisdom, it is the means of salvation (cf. Rom. 1:16).

If it is not already clear by this point, it is worth noting that God loves preaching. He loves it because He loves saving sinners, and this is how He saves them. We can despise preaching all we want. We can replace preaching with productions, play movies instead of opening up the Bible, or do whatever we think is going to win people—and indeed, it might bring in more numbers, but it won’t win more souls. Rather, we should love it when our pastor steps into the pulpit to deliver God’s Word because it’s a moment of salvation for God’s chosen people. We should be pleased with preaching because it pleases God. Indeed, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, KJV).

It’s a mystery, but in God’s wise plan, He has made it so that through simple words His saving work is made known. In the famous words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” If we recaptured this high view of preaching, we would engage in weekly worship not with yawns but with awe. We would come with eager anticipation, not dread or drudgery, because we are coming to hear our Lord and Savior speak to us.


Adapted from What Happens When We Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2020) and previously posted on July 7, 2021.

  1. Anne Fisher, “Why TED Talks Are Better than the Last Speech You Sat Through,” Fortune, February 25, 2014, ↩︎
  2. Julius J. Kim, Preaching the Whole Counsel of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2015), 19. ↩︎
  3. Quoted in Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939–1981 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1990), 325–26. ↩︎
  4. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 20:78. ↩︎

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