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How should God’s Word be preached? CFW Walther covers that question with characteristic clarity and force in his Pastoral Theology. Listen to learn what ought to be in a good sermon, what’s important in a sermon, and why sanctification must be proclaimed clearly from the pulpit.

Books for further reading: Pastoral Theology, Gospel Sermons Vol. 1, Gospel Sermons Vol. 2, and Suelflow’s biography Servant of the Word.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz
Episode: 17

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Factionalism was one of the primary problems within the Corinthian congregation, and Paul addresses this issue first within his letter.  This division, however, stemmed at least in part from the influence of those who questioned the authority of Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1-7).  Such false teachers attempted to undermine Paul to make their own authority appear all the greater.  Therefore, Paul addresses the problem of division by carefully clarifying the nature of his authority as an apostle, from which we may also learn the nature of authority within the Church in general.

Paul’s authority does not center in his rhetorical ability.  “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  If anything, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Paul was not particularly impressive in terms of speaking (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 10:10).  However, this is for their benefit, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).  Such wisdom was not worldly, but from the Spirit, and as such belongs to those who are of Christ, apart from all worldly considerations.

Nor does Paul’s authority center in his own person.  The Corinthians had forgotten this, and their factionalism arose from considering the man too highly.  “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).  Paul’s work in laying the foundation is of much value, to be sure, but it is ultimately God working through Paul that makes this work what it is.  Paul is a skilled master builder, laying the foundation which is Jesus Christ, and the Judgment will reveal the nature of that work (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Therefore, one must regard Paul and those who bear authority in the Church as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  A high calling, but one that bears high responsibility, since the value of stewards depends on how faithfully their exercise their office.  Joseph rose to prominence in his master’s house because the Lord was with him (Genesis 39).  The dishonest steward lost his position from squandering his master’s possessions (Luke 16:1-13).  Stewards of Christ demonstrate their faithfulness by rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), bringing out of their treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).  They continue in what they have been taught, being equipped for every good work through the power of the living Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:10-17).

But the judgment of faithfulness is not a matter of the world, either.  “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).  And if the faithful are incompetent to judge such cases, as it were, why would the world be any better (1 Corinthians 6)?  Not that Paul must answer to the Church regarding his faithfulness, but to his own master, the Lord.  But when the Lord comes to judge the world, then the nature of what he has build will be revealed.  Paul has labored for a time in darkness, but the light of Christ will make all things plain.

As with Paul, so also with those entrusted with smaller responsibilities.  The guardian of the remote post is not thereby relieved of his duty or relaxed in its rigor.  The value of his labor in the Lord too will be judged by fire.  Will it be flammable, built upon the wisdom of men?  The appearance of such wisdom is always impressive, but ultimately devoid of power.  It is self-serving and desires only to be noticed.  Or will it endure the test, built upon the mind of Christ?  While such wisdom may come with rhetorical ability, it will prove itself by its fruits.  It builds up those who hear it, even at the cost of making those who bear it a “spectacle to the world,” fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).  But it is ultimately worthy of imitation.  The arrogant fool who delights in worldly wisdom has only talk, but “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Following the account of his call in chapters 1-3, Ezekiel preaches against Israel in chapters 4 through 24. Like many of the other prophets, Ezekiel condemns Israel for her sins and proclaims that the judgment is coming swiftly. Ezekiel’s ministry begins close to the end of the kingdom and continues into the exile. However, he turns his attention against the enemies of Israel in chapters 25 through 32, which is good news for Israel. God has not forgotten His people, even as He punishes them for their sins. Ezekiel then returns to Israel, bringing both more words of reproof as well as words of comfort. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter falls into the latter.

By the time of this passage, Jerusalem has been captured and the kingdom has come to an end. The exiles have begun to despair: “Our bones have dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). Everything seems to be lost, and all of God’s promises seem to have failed. They are in a foreign land because of their sins, and they are wondering when, or even if, it will end.

Ezekiel 37:1 demonstrates that the valley of dry bones is a vision given to the prophet. Ezekiel says that the “hand of the Lord” was upon him, a key phrase for such visions throughout the book (Ezekiel 3:14, 22; 8:1; 40:1). He is also brought “in the Spirit” into the valley (Revelation 4:2; 17:3). While the Holy Spirit can physically move someone from place to place (such as Philip in Acts 8:39-40), the passage is presented in the language of a prophetic vision. Ezekiel is commanded to go into “the valley” in 3:22, which suggests a physical location, but it is not specified, and he sees a vision both times. If they are the same valley, he does not record the presence of the bones the first time.

Ezekiel 37:2 emphasizes just how many bones there are in this valley, since the prophet is led among them, and it also emphasizes that there is no earthly hope for them. Dry bones have been out in the open for a long time. But the Lord asks him, “Son of Adam, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? A rhetorical question, as the Lord already knows what He wants to do (John 6:6; Rev 7:13-14; John 21:15-17). However, Ezekiel recognizes that he should not impose his own thoughts here, but rather answers “Lord God, You know” (compare 2 Peter 1:20).

The Lord commands him to “prophesy” or to speak as he commanded to speak. Ezekiel, in fact, has no choice but to speak in this way, suggesting that for him in particular “the hand of the Lord” is something like a prophetic fit (Ezekiel 3:26-27). It is true that the Lord had loosed his mouth when Jerusalem fell (Ezekiel 33:22), but he still speaks as he is commanded here. It is certainly appropriate to connect this to verses about the Lord being with the mouth of the preacher (such as Jeremiah 15:19 or Luke 10:16), as Ezekiel helps to clarify just how important it is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). But the prophet does so involuntarily or at least does so through most of his ministry.

Nevertheless, it is in the proclamation of the Word of the Lord that all of the things the Lord promises happens to the bones. The bones are commanded to “hear,” which only emphasizes that the Word alone will do what the Lord promises to do (Romans 10:17; Luke 11:28; John 6:63; Psalm 119:25, 117; John 11:43-44). The coming of the Spirit points also to the first creation of man, since the Lord breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The Lord alone gives physical life, and the Lord alone gives spiritual life (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 5:18: Hosea 6:1).

Finally, the Lord does nothing without a purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). He sends this vision to Ezekiel to comfort Israel in the midst of their distress. The beautiful ending of this passage regarding the opening of the graves seems to serve two purposes. First, Israel will be raised from the grave of exile, so to speak, and set back in their own land. Because the major prophets have said this again and again to Israel, even in the face of the coming disaster, “I will bring you into the land” (Ezekiel 37:12, 14) must also carry with it this immediate promise. However, the language is too plain to say that it must only refer to the return from exile. Rather, as Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26; see also 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:13; et al).

By a word the sick man was healed. By a word Lazarus came out from his tomb. By a word the adulterous woman was saved from certain death. A simple, fitting word can move heaven and earth. Everlasting life depends on someone preaching, because without someone preaching, how will the dead hear and live? And the one preaching must proclaim the word of Christ and nothing else. God’s Word is enough to make the man of God perfect, equipped for every good work.

God’s Word is enough for understanding Scripture. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture has its power and authority that needs no supplement for doing the work of converting, enlightening, and equipping the servants of Christ. The powerful and clear Scripture moved Josiah to upend his own kingdom.  God’s Son pointed to this powerful and clear Scripture to demonstrate that He had been sent to fulfill it. It is then powerful and clear for us, too, so that poring over Scripture in depth is endlessly rewarding, refreshing, and renewing. Sustained by Scripture, we are like trees planted by streams of water, ever refreshed and ever fruitful.

God’s Word is enough for proclaiming the whole counsel of God. The servant of Christ did not choose to proclaim but was chosen to proclaim. Paul did not select his message but was found and used mightily by the Lord to proclaim a message he had not known in his prior foolishness and blindness. Made wise by the study of Holy Scripture, the preacher will joyfully and powerfully proclaim the entirety of Scripture, not only those passages or tenses or doctrines dearest or most comfortable to him. Christ would feed His people with the plenty and the variety of His Word. Christ’s servants have only to serve what the Master offers.

God’s Word is enough for spreading the reign of God the Lord. The servant who imitates his Master and the apostles will be fervent in proclaiming the good news of Jesus everywhere he goes. He will do the work of an evangelist because he knows the kingdom of God is at hand. A sober and glorious zeal will fill his heart in extending God’s kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.

By words about reading the Scriptures, about preaching the Scriptures, and about the mission on which the Scriptures send all of us, we here at A Word Fitly Spoken aim to give you, the servant of Christ, more and more always from the fullness the Lord has given us in His Holy Word. We love and would glorify our Lord in His Church and His faithful servants, who are being changed even now from this earthly glory to a heavenly glory beyond all comparing. Look here for words on the way to that latter glory, words to refresh and guide, to lift up and to build up, words beautiful and true like apples of gold in a setting of silver.