What Do History’s Best Preachers Have in Common?

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 The thought has surely passed into the realm of cliché since, yet the deeper truth behind the platitude is found in the apostle Paul’s teaching that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4).

While learning from the past does not necessarily eliminate trouble, it can provide important insight into how we should live in the present. This is true not only for countries and governments but for churches and pastors as well. With this in mind, let us briefly look at the history of preaching as we find it described in the Bible and practiced in the lives of church leaders throughout the centuries.

Preaching in the Old Testament

When we read the Old Testament Scriptures, we discover that even before the establishment of a formal priesthood, the priestly function was fulfilled by the father in the home as he proclaimed the mercy of God’s covenant to his children. He had his own little flock, and he recognized that he was to instruct them in the ways of God (e.g., Gen. 18:19). In 2 Peter 2:5, of all the titles the apostle could give to Noah, he is referred to as “a herald,” or a preacher, “of righteousness.” Similarly, when the elders were appointed in the time of Moses, we find that they prophesied, even if only for a time (Num. 11:25).

Throughout the Old Testament, we see a pattern of prophetic teaching—prophetic in the sense that men were dispatched to proclaim the living Word of God to their generations. For example, those who were appointed during the time of Jehoshaphat “taught in Judah, having the Book of the Law of the Lord with them. They went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people” (2 Chron. 17:9).

When God was raising up individuals such as these, He was making perfectly clear that they would be carrying “the Book of the Law of the Lord.” Those who heard them would have said, “Here come the people with the scrolls. Let’s go and listen to the fellow with the scroll. Give us something from the scroll!” The preacher would not have had much to say apart from that which was written on the scroll he held in his hands. These preachers were not experts about all matters sociological and political, but they had given themselves to the Book—and the reason they went around the towns of Judah was to make it known.

When you get to the postexilic period, you have the classic illustration of the task of preaching: the wonderful picture of Ezra being called out to study and teach God’s Law (Ezra 7:9–10). Nehemiah contains the amazing description of Ezra standing “on a high wooden platform” (8:4 NIV), that he might be seen and heard by the gathering mass, and reading aloud from the Book of the Law “from early morning until midday,” with the result being that “the ears of all the people were attentive” (Neh. 8:3). And Ezra wasn’t alone. Others joined with him, multiplying the impact of the words he was preaching: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).

“Preachers are to read from the Book, make it clear, and give the meaning so that—through the Spirit’s enablement—the people will be able to understand it and apply it to their lives.”

That is the essence of expository ministry. As it was then, so it is today: preachers are to read from the Book, make it clear, and give the meaning so that—through the Spirit’s enablement—the people will be able to understand it and apply it to their lives. Indeed, this verse provides the great questions that we must ask of all Bible teaching: Is it from the book of God? Have we made it clear? Did we establish the meaning? Do the people understand?

Preaching in the New Testament

From the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, it was clear that preaching God’s Word was His priority as well. His every word and deed were steeped in Scripture.

In the opening chapter of Mark, for instance, after Jesus has healed many and cast demons out of those who had been possessed, He says to His disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38). They then “went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (v. 39). Later, when we find Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth in Luke 4, He reads right from the book of Isaiah, then declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Even after His resurrection, He deals with the two disconsolate disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24 by explaining to them all that is in the Bible concerning Himself. What was Jesus doing? Practicing expository ministry!

The pattern that Jesus established was one the apostles would later follow. How Christ must have rejoiced when He looked from His vantage point in heaven and saw Peter stand up—Peter, of all people!—and give a tremendous expository sermon in Acts 2. And what followed? The same pattern all the way throughout the Acts of Apostles.

The preaching found in the Bible is grounded in Scripture, it is focused on Christ, and its great end is God’s glory. And when we look at the Bible, we discover that this kind of preaching is not only for Jesus and His followers but also for preachers in our day as well.

Do we have these truths in mind? Are we bringing people to the Scriptures? Are we helping to create a genuine hunger for God’s Word? Are we pointing people to Jesus?

“The preaching found in the Bible is grounded in Scripture, it is focused on Christ, and its great end is God’s glory.”

Preaching among the Early Church Fathers

If the Scriptures alone provide the yardstick by which authentic Christian preaching can be assessed, then what do we learn about preaching from the time of the New Testament through that of the early church fathers?

In the church’s early days, the same pattern of preaching was followed by people like Ignatius and Justin Martyr, whose writings exemplify commitment to wrestling with and proclaiming the Scriptures. When we examine the lives of men such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, we discover that they built a bridge of faithful proclamation that continued until the time of Chrysostom and Augustine. During this time period, preaching continued unabated, even as influences were at work to undermine a dedication to preaching grounded in Scripture, focused on Christ, and with the great end of glorifying God.

Allegory was the first influence which undermined biblical preaching. In those early centuries, some preachers bamboozled their listeners by making sure that nearly everything in Scripture actually meant something else. For far too many, the Bible was like a box of tricks; therefore, some made it seem as if it took a magician to get the rabbit out of the hat. Still today, there is great danger in any preaching that loves to intrigue people by twisting Scripture ever so marginally, making it appear as though the average person in a congregation will never be able to understand the Bible.

Another factor working against biblical preaching was a focus on rhetoric—an approach that sought to appeal primarily to the seats of learning. This was antithetical to Paul’s approach in Corinth (1 Cor. 1–2). While Paul was actually brilliant, he determined not to cater to the intelligentsia of his day in order that he might proclaim the “foolishness” of the cross.

The third influence undermining preaching was the development of liturgy that squeezed out biblical exposition. Although such liturgy often retained the reading of Scripture and the singing of great songs, the development of strict liturgy tended to diminish the role of preaching within the church. This same tendency needs to be fought against in our day. It’s not enough that pleasant songs are sung, well-written prayers are prayed, and God’s Word is merely read to His people. No, the Bible must be proclaimed to His people. Preaching must have its place.

Preaching during the Reformation and Beyond

The time from Augustine until the Reformation was a dark period in the history of the church. There was light, but the factors mentioned above—namely, the misuse of allegory, rhetoric, and liturgy—were all so interwoven with the speculative tendencies of the logic of Aristotle that biblical, God-glorifying preaching was greatly diminished. That was why the Reformation had to come.

In the Reformation, we were introduced to John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and many more. And what did they do? They essentially looked back to Chrysostom, to Augustine, to the apostolic pattern, and they said, “We must do as they did. We must ground our preaching in the Scriptures.”

The post-Reformation era included many preachers who are still widely read and appreciated today—men such as Johnathan Edwards, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, Charles Simeon, and Charles Spurgeon. In all of their wonderful preaching we find more of the same: proclamation that is grounded in the Scriptures, focused upon Christ, and aimed at glorifying God. That was the key to their success.

As we look back over history, from the Bible’s first chapters right down to the present day, we find that while circumstances have changed, faithful preaching has always been the same. In His Word, God has provided us with a roadmap to help us to navigate the path that we should take, all the while making us aware of the dangers we may encounter along the way.

Both Scripture and history bear witness to the kind of preaching God chooses to bless. It is grounded in the Scriptures, it is focused upon Christ, and its end is His glory. Since God has set His seal upon it, then the present generation of church leaders, and each to come, would be wise to give itself wholeheartedly to the task set before us.

Adapted from the sermon “A Historical Survey of Preaching” by Alistair Begg

On Being a Pastor


1 George Santayana, The Life of Reason, or The Phases of Human Progress, vol. 1, Introduction and Reason in Common Sense (New York: Scribner’s, 1906), 284.

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