Born to a priestly family, set apart from birth, sent with the spirit and power of Elijah, and called the greatest among women, John the Immerser was a man among men. He was part prophet, part trailblazer, John was all preacher. The gospel account of Luke records more of the content of John’s preaching and specifics of his ministry than Matthew or Mark (Luke 3:1-21). When the word of the Lord came to John (Luke 3:2), like with other prophets, it was powerful. When he stood, he spoke, unshaken by the winds of apathy or tradition, as an oracle of the Almighty. To some, this type of preaching might be labeled old-fashioned, outdated, and out of style. What can we learn today about the content of preaching from the life, lessons, and language of this great preacher?
Preaching Should Be Doctrinal (Luke 3:3)
With a message that consisted of the unholy nature of sin, the necessity of repentance, and immersion in water unto the forgiveness of sins, John’s message was that of doctrinal substance. His sermons spoke of the coming Messianic kingdom (Matt. 3:2), the church of our Lord. Why would preachers today not want to follow this Biblical example and lessons based in sound doctrine? Certainly, the topics of sin, repentance, baptism, and the church have not declined in importance with the passing of time.
Preaching Should Point the Way to Jesus (Luke 3:4-6)
John’s ministry, as we see from Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 40:3-5), was to be one of trailblazing for the coming ministry of Jesus. He was to prepare people’s hearts and minds to hear Christ and become obedient to the One who could save them from death. While John’s work was very particular in coming before Jesus (cf. Mal. 4:6), there is reverberation from John’s work to that of every faithful gospel preacher today: we want our ministry and message to point people to Christ. In fact, when people looked a little too hard at John, he pointed them even more forcefully to the Christ (cf. John 3:27-36; Matt. 11:2ff). Today we hold these words near to our hearts: He must increase but I must decrease.
Preaching Should Confront and Rebuke Sin (Luke 3:7-9)
John’s preaching was very direct: he called his audience sons of snakes and warned them like a good watchman of the wrath that would come without a change of life. Sin is so vile and rotten that men of God throughout Scripture stood tall to tell those around them of the grave evil done, of the great disappointment caused to God, and of the coming destruction. Why would preachers today fold from this direct confrontation of and admonition against sin? John did not preach a come as you are, stay as you are gospel. Instead, he called his audience to create a change in their life based on a conviction in their mind; that is repentance. Because, without repentance, no man shall be saved (Luke 13:3, 5). Sin and sinners must be confronted today. That does not mean that the preacher needs to spend his sermon telling the church about other sinners. While these warnings are fair and fine, people who hear us need to know when their lives are amiss. We need watchmen today to herald the dangers of sin to congregations across the world.
Preaching Should Be Consistent with the Bible (Luke 3:10-11)
What would fruit worthy of repentance look like for the common person? It would look similar to the second commandment: love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27, Lev. 19:18). We should not expect John’s preaching to deviate from the Old Testament Scriptures, and it did not. So to with us today, our preaching must be filtered through and saturated with God’s Word. When studying for our sermons, the Bible should be the first and the last resource considered on any given topic, on any given passage. No matter what other resource might be consulted, no matter what the religious elite of the day may say, no matter what oral traditions stand, the man of God will preach only those things consistent with Biblical truth.
Preaching Should Be Relevant and Practical (Luke 3:12-14)
For some people, simple commands like “love your neighbor” are enough to spur them to immediate action. Yet, for many of us, we need help from time to time to see exactly how a simple passage like that applies directly and specifically in our lives. John found this same need in his audience. Questioners came from two groups that would not have been the most popular among the Jewish leadership: publicans and soldiers. When they sought to apply the direct preaching of John to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance and love their neighbors, John gave them relevant and practical advice. Vague preaching is not worth much. God’s word is a standard, a plumbline, and it is often very direct. When the Scriptures are clear, let the sermon reflect that. There is no need to leave people wondering how the Bible applies to them. Preachers should know their audience whether publican or Pharisee, soldier or Sadducee, farmer or financier and bring relevant, practical messages.
Preaching Should Exalt Jesus (Luke 3:15-17)
There was no place in the preaching of John for self-glorification, no place for the tribes of traditionalism, no place for the status of society, and no place words of human wisdom. John’s work was to exalt Jesus. In John’s eyes, he saw himself as unable to do the lowliest chore (loosening the sandal) of the lowliest, most incompetent bondservant. What humility! When the greatest among us sees himself in this light, God will be magnified, and Christ will be glorified. If people ever praise our good work or good words, may we have the attitude that says there is One who is mightier than me. When tempted to put on a show or bow to the popular opinion, may we ever remember the One who holds the winnowing fan in his hand and will thoroughly purge his threshing floor. And, perhaps more importantly, may those who hear us preach notice that our preaching exalts Christ.
Preaching Should Give the Audience Hope (Luke 3:18)
The message of John was that of good news (“good tidings” – ASV). Even when the faithful man of God confronts sin and the realities which follow, preaching should always leave people with hope. Until Jesus comes again and this world melts away, every living human has hope (2 Pet. 3:9). Even “hard preaching” should be hopeful; Isaiah’s was (Isa. 1:13-20). Today, when men stand to preach, we set forth the unsearchable riches of Christ which will lead souls to salvation. It’s no wonder that the tradition developed within the churches of Christ in the US to end every sermon with an invitation.
To some, John’s preaching would be outdated (and Jesus and Paul for that matter too). However, when we examine the content of John’s message and ministry, we see today a pattern for preachers, young and old to mimic in the pulpit, behind the lectern, and across the kitchen table. And we see the kind of preaching that elders and members should demand from the pulpit where they worship.