Preaching as Mystical Event

June 4, 2021

When I was young in the faith. I had the pleasure of being mentored by an evangelist, named Algernon Tenyson. Yes, He was my black old brother and I was his young tag-along (affectionately known as white chocolate). He taught me the simplicity of the Gospel and how to give the word with love and oil on it. This was reinforced by a little-C-Charismatic Methodist pastor who instructed me to go off by myself somewhere, in a room, in the woods, in an empty church and preach to myself, not so much to practice my oratory skills but to learn how to submit to, bend with and let God’s anointing guide me. I can say from experience the Spirit is faithful in such situations. Such “preaching” is more than passionately presenting truth, though that might be present. It is more than a clearly organized argument, and intellectually stimulating points though both should be present. It is more than an experience of the holy, though many wittiness to it. Of what I speak, rises above such externals for it is God's work in man’s words, unseen and untamable.

I have started an old book by "James S. Stewart" on preaching called the 'Heralds of God' (1946). The first chapter reminded me of the advice given me by both Algernon and My Methodist preacher friend:

Your task is not to send people away from church saying, 'That was a lovely sermon' or 'What an eloquent appeal!' The one question is 'Did they, or did they not, meet God today?' There will always be some who have no desire for that, some who rather than being confronted with the living Christ would actually prefer what G.K. Chesterton described as 'one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever.' But when Peter finished his first great sermon in Jerusalem, reported in the Book of Acts, I do not read that 'when they heard him they were intrigued by his eloquence' or 'politely interested in his literary allusions' or 'critical of his logic and his accent' or 'bored and impassive and contemptuous'; what I do read is 'when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart'[1]

We might ask, how would we know if we met God in preaching? Stewart points to the response at Pentecost. We might also look to Jesus in John 10 who tells us his sheep recognize his voice. If we meet God, hear his voice, we know if it's happened. And when it does it'll be something more than just hearing words spoken from a pulpit, though it may not be less.

Stewart tells of Robert Wodrow's testimony of such preaching: 'that man showed me the majesty of God... the loveliness of Christ... and showed me my whole heart' (p72-73). May God grant every pastor such a testimony in preaching. I wish to call pulpit and pew to recognize and delight in this mysterious dimension of preaching.

What happens beyond the hearing in the pew and the speaking in the pulpit? What happens when preaching happens? In the excellent lecture, "Preaching as Mystical Event", Robert Rayburn gives what i think is a definitive answer to that question. He explains the reformation understanding that through faithful preaching we most often and most powerfully hear the authoritative voice of God. Rayburn argues that today's preaching has forgotten this dimension. Rayburn is conservative and reformed so I am not encouraging some weird leave your bible at home, preaching. What Rayburn means by mystical is not ethereal fluff but the authority of God experienced in human word.

Jesus is describable in this way, as one who spoke with authority (Luke 4:32). In John 7 Jesus is preaching and soldiers coming to arrest him were arrested by his word and captive to his authority. Jesus' words had a deep magic to them. A mystical power that could stop a solder in his tracks. When confronted with their change of heart the soldiers replied, "No one ever spoke like this man!" Like the soldier's, it is an event in which we meet encourager a mysterious authority. By "Mystical" i mean to implies a kind of power or dare i say it magic. What C.S. Lewis called the "deep magic". If you have ever heard it you know it. Preaching that was clearly Gospel but laden with a "deep magic" beyond the words, an unseen, transcendent whisper, barely tangible yet deeply palpable.

Rayburn begins with:

"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
(1 Thess 2:13 ESV)

Rayburn sites that the hearing of preaching is a mystical event. In that it transcends what one hears in a lecture or seminary exposition of a text even though style and content may be similar. In 1 Thess we read Paul's description of the Thessalonians approach to his ministry. They received his preaching like it was from God.

Paul did not say they rejected his word as the word of man. what does Paul mean by "accepted it not as the word of men"? Accepting a message as the word of man is not meant in a strictly negative way. You can except something as the word of man and still honor and respect it. It is accepting the authority of a good argument as man's invention. Accepting a message as the word of man means it does not carry with it the authority of Heaven that pierces the heart. Thus, a Gospel message can be accepted as biblical but not received without authority.

Accepting a message as the word of man is our fallen tenancy for we appoint and anoint ourselves as Judge and King. Let me clarify with an example: Do you have a BBQ every Sunday lunch? Many Christians do. Not BBQ pork, but BBQ preacher. As many race home for Sunday lunch they roast the Pastor's message for they act as if it was only a lecture about God. They pick it apart and only digest those things that appeal to them. Yes, it is a pull pork BBQ. Unlike the Thessalonians, they do not encounter God only good ideas for it was not received as the authoritative Word of God.

Along with countless historical and ecclesiastical references Rayburn also cites the book of Romans:

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"
(Romans 10:14 ESV)

And notes, as with the ESV footnote, that the "of" isn't there. Which is to say, in preaching we don't just hear of God, but we hear God. Paul says if you want to hear God then you need a preacher to explain the Scripture and proclaim the gospel. Preaching in this manor is the word of God. This is not some Barthian theology of the Word. This is classic reformed theology. Here is how the second helvetic confession puts it:

"THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.”

Some might say, such authority finds its locus in the true proclamation of the Gospel. The authority of the word is the power of the right interpretation preached. Truth plus proclamation equals powerful preaching. There is truth in that but when I speak of "preaching as a mystical event" I speak of the ministry of Word and Spirit in preaching to reveal Christ. It’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling for an "ex opere operato"[2] of the pulpit. That is, the we (preachers) must not imagine that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter. The pulpit must never give in to the thought that we earn the ministry of the Spirit in preaching by our exegetical and homiletic craftsmanship. The pulpit must resist this – we must begin from above.  Illumination is grace.  It is Christ by the Spirit who chooses to condescend in proclamation (not we who bring Him down).  But in this divine condescension it is Christ Himself who encounters us.

Further, it is the sovereign and unrestricted Spirit, who is truly God and as God is free to do and help as he wills. The Spirit will bring the authority if we have the faith. God, the Spirit is illuminating and speaking Christ  to a believer through the preaching. A message of light and heart, the result of what my granddad called the unction, the anointing of the holy spirit in operation. In Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds writes on this operation:

“This divine unction is the one distinguishing feature that separates true gospel preaching from all other methods of presenting truth. It backs and interpenetrates the revealed truth with all the force of God. It illumines the Word and broadens and enrichens the intellect and empowers it to grasp and apprehend the Word. It qualifies the preacher’s heart, and brings it to that condition of tenderness, of purity, of force and light that are necessary to secure the highest results. This unction gives to the preacher liberty and enlargement of thought and soul—a freedom, fullness, and directness of utterance that can be secured by no other process.”

Some say, He is the Spirit of Truth and will not bless any falsehood, which is true if you speak of lies such as, "Christ is not God" or "The blood is not enough". For the Spirit to deal with humanity he must deal with less than perfection. The pulpit should seek faithful proclamation, clear and simple, yet if we err or misspeak, or in any other ways fail we are not left without hope or help. Man in his ignorance will dilute the pure truth of God but God in his grace has saved many though the diluted words of under-qualified unprepared preachers.  Sometime ignorant preaching can be empowered. I once knew a guy who had the gospel down but beyond that he had a loose grasp on the text yet you always felt like God had spoke to you after he preached. In our weakness, our ignorance, our humanness, it is the Spirit who protects the hearers and ministers. There is grace permeating the event of preaching. (exceptions and qualifiers do apply) [3]

There are to sides to this mystical aspect: the pew and the pulpit.

1.) A Heart of Faith in Preaching
As my dad taught me, The pulpit need to be prayed up, studied up, and filled up. So you can spend the the next thirty to forty-five mins, being broken and spilled out. we are called to rightly divide the word of truth, consistently pray for guidance and help. When it is time to preach, we should faithfully preach and preach with faith. It is the later that most stumble over. As I wrote above it’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling into a works based assessment of the pulpit. That is, the pulpit must not imagine that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter. The pulpit must never believe we earn the ministry of the Spirit in preaching by our exegetical and homiletic craftsmanship. Thus, bad preaching can be used by God.

Preaching with faith means not putting any confidence in our ability nor trusting ones own skill and intellectual power to make the word effective. We should not believe we can by our action stop or mediate a divine encounter. The Holy Spirit's work is not conditioned on the grounds of our ability or limited by our inability. We are called as heralds of God to trust God to work. Trust that the preaching of the word of God is the Word of God because God loves people. Luther agrees:

“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”[4]

Calvin also understand the authority of Word and Spirit:

“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”[5]

God can speak in our preaching, if we only have faith He is willing and able. Many preachers trust homiletic skill or in there exegetical skill that they rightly interpreted the text. While both are good things and a part of any faithful preachers preparation it is not where we place our trust.

It all comes down to faith. So why is prayer so connected with powerful preaching? I use to think if I spent 10 hours praying for my sermon i would be blessed with a powerful anointing come Sunday. The connection between prayer and preaching is simply that prayer strengths your confidence in God and your dependence on the Spirit. Prayer strengths our trust and that is the important thing.

Something powerful happens when a man preaches with faith, desiring to Glorify God and believing God will use him because of who God is. When a man preaches with full confidence in God, it is as if he lights himself on fire. Often he decreases into ash and all that's left is the beautiful light of faith. A man awed by the glory of God and burned by it's heat can speak a whisper of Gospel truth and find the pews ablaze with holy tongues of fire. 

2.) The Right Hearing of Preaching
First, the pew must, "Take heed what you hear," (Mark 4:24). We must hear nothing with approval except what we know to be the word of God. We must, therefore, be well acquainted with the Scriptures ourselves, and test the things which we hear. we should remain open yet resisting a critical spirit and watch out for the hopelessness of a cynical attitude, as the men of Berea did (Acts 17:11).

Second, the pew should "Take heed how you hear," (Luke 18:18). That which we know to be grounded upon the Scriptures we must receive, "not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God," (1 Thess. 2:13). We must with reverence hear it; we must in our hearts believe, if we intend to obey it.

Third, The pew needs to come with the expectation that they will hear from God. No more lectures only sermons. Every heart in every pew needs to wait and want the authority of heaven, the word of God  to be reveal God, the living God. No matter how a sermon is packaged, submitted heart and the Spirit's work makes bread from even the weakest straw. If the people's hearts cry "Preacher, We would here God!" Then even the words of the most cantankerous self-willed preacher may shine with the dew of heaven.

Now, do you want to hear from God? How many time have you felt like, the preacher was speaking right to you. After a sermon you felt like you had the strength to obey, the energy to endure, the clarity to trust and a heart renewed to worship, then you have touched on it. The hem of Jesus' garment has brushed your heart, power left him, and the word was spoken to you. As you pass the church doors into the wide open world your mind is calmed and centered on the simple fact that you met God.

The pew, needs to learn to open to hear God in the sermon. God is the authority. God's word changes us, transforms us in deep penetrating ways that are mysterious and transcendent, as the psalmist explained it is like deep calling to deep. God's word is proclaimed and we experience it mystically, spiritually, authoritatively. Now this is just one aspect of a sermon so let's have some balance but if such a thing has not happened to you in a while you may need to ask are you open. Could you be conditioned by so many lectures, anesthetized by power point that you come to church to hear about God and not from him.

Do you desire to hear from God? Certainly study the Bible, wait on the Spirit's conviction, listen to others, but we're playing games if we do all of that and don't take a really high view of preaching. Do I come to the church gathering expecting that kind of encounter with God? When it's my turn to preach do I prepare and pray and preach with the expectation that God will speak, that the preaching of the word of God will be the word of God to his people?







End Notes

[1] James S. Stewart 'Heralds of God' (1946) p.31

[2] Ex Opere Operato is a Latin phases meaning "by the doing it is done" or "from the work worked".  It is used in the Roman Catholic system of theology it deals with the sacraments which are said to convey grace by the fact of being performed correctly by an authorized priest. (

[3]  I don't speak of the one who proclaims another Christ excluding the stiff necked heretic unwilling and undaunted.

[4] Quoted from CD I/1, p107

[5] Sermon XXII on 1 Tim 3:2 “apt to teach”, quoted in THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, Westminster/ John Knox, 1992, p24


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