"As I Ought to Speak" - Biblical Dynamics for Preaching and Teaching (Part 1)

Just as we seek to discover our hermeneutical method from the pages of Scripture and to apply those principles consistently, we also need to recognize that Scripture has much to say regarding how we should communicate God’s word to others. These principles even go so far as to help us think through the appropriate dynamics of communication.

Keep it as Simple as Possible

In John 16:29 the disciples acknowledged that Jesus was speaking plainly or boldly (parresia), rather than with figures of speech, and they responded, “Now we know…” They were not confused about His message, and understood what He was telling them. While certainly there are appropriate uses of figurative language and illustration, it is generally better to communicate simply and straightforwardly in order to ensure the point is not lost in translation through the use of too many rhetorical devices.

It is worth noting that Jesus didn’t use parables for the sake of making things easier to understand—in fact, His stated purpose in some cases was just the opposite (Mt 13:13,34; Mk 4:33-34). Notice that even when He used figurative language with His disciples, they misunderstood (e.g., Jn 6:51-61, 11:12-14) He later acknowledges the superiority of plain speaking as opposed to figurative (Jn 16:25). This is not to say we should not utilize parables at times, but rather we should not misrepresent how Jesus used that particular rhetorical tool and for what purposes. Though Paul made use of occasional metaphors (e.g., Gal 4:24, 2 Tim 2:4-6), he later confirms the importance of clear and distinct speech if the intent is that what is said is to be understood (1 Cor 14:9).

Some practical implications

  • Speak with clarity.
  • Avoid wordiness.
  • Use figures of speech judiciously.
  • Speak distinctly, so as to be understood.
  • Remember that if you can’t say something concisely, you don’t know it.

Speak Boldly

Because of the glory of the message and the hope it provides, Paul was able to say, “we use great boldness (parresia) in speech” (2 Cor 3:12). He adds that he ought to speak boldly (Eph 6:20). He modeled this boldness when he proclaimed the gospel to the Thessalonians even amid much opposition (1 Thes 2:2). Paul encouraged that these things be spoken confidently (Tit 3:8). The confidence didn’t derive from the speaker, but rather from the message itself, because these things were God’s words.

Some practical implications

  • Don’t hide from controversial issues. Attack them head on with the truth and clarity of Scripture.
  • Speak at an appropriate volume.
  • Avoid nervous ticks (both in speech and action: avoid ums, you knows, I means, rattling keys, etc.).
  • Embrace silence, which can be a very effective tool, giving listeners time to consider.

Speak To Please God, Not Men

Paul modeled speaking to please God rather than men, recognizing that God examines hearts (Gal 1:10, Col 1:10, 1 Thes 2:4). He later warns Timothy of the coming danger of people who will not endure sound teaching but will want their ears tickled (2 Tim 4:3-4). These people will prefer myths to truth, and will demand teachers who accommodate that preference. When we encounter those preferences, we have an obligation to biblical integrity, no matter the consequences.

Some practical implications

  • Avoid peer pressure.
  • Avoid outcomes-based thinking: speak the truth, regardless of consequences.

Speak Humbly

In Luke 7:13-16 is the account of Jesus raising a woman’s only son from the dead. Upon Jesus’ command “the dead man sat up and began to speak.” God doesn’t need you and He doesn’t need me. He has gotten along just fine for many years without us, and while He chooses to use us, He can raise up dead people, or rocks, or even a donkey to speak for Him if He so chooses. Just as there is no room for boasting in our efforts related to salvation—because they have nothing to do with our salvation (Eph 2:8-10)—there is no room for boasting in His use of us either. As Paul said, we should boast in Him.

In our speaking, let’s not confuse humility for weakness. Christ demonstrated humility, but never weakness. He acknowledged that the one speaking from himself seeks his own glory (Jn 7:18), reminding His listeners that He was indeed speaking from the Father (Jn 7:16). The principle He cited is also true in our case. If we speak from ourselves it is our own glory we are seeking. To speak with the proper humility means to boast in Him, and never in ourselves. It means that we are speaking from Him, and not from ourselves. As Peter put it, believers who are speaking should be speaking as if the very words of God (1 Pet 4:10-11). In other words, what we say should be consistent with and representative of Him. And as Paul put it, when speaking His message, there is an obligation to faithfulness, and no cause for boasting (1 Cor 9:16).

Some practical implications

  • Avoid excessive use of first person pronouns (I, me, etc.).
  • Wherever possible, refer to you when commending and encouraging, we when exhorting and reproving, and I when providing self-deprecating examples.

Speak Impartially

The scribes and chief priests unsuccessfully attempted to find some inconsistency in Jesus, hoping that they could have Him condemned. In one of their attempts they acknowledged the relationship of correct teaching and impartiality, noting that Jesus was teaching correctly and was not partial, or that He was not showing favoritism (not receiving appearances or faces, ou lambaneis prospon). Likewise, while Paul had a particular method of seeking audiences in the synagogues, wherever he found pliable listeners he would invest himself, even challenging societal norms (e.g., Ac 16:13), just as Jesus had done before (e.g., Jn 4:9). James adds that in the body of Christ we are not to show favoritism (Jam 2:1-9).

Some practical implications

  • Avoid appealing only to certain demographics.
  • Make eye contact with as many people (of all ages etc.) as possible.
  • Be encouraging to all wherever possible.
  • Avoid appeals to authority other than Scripture (be careful with quoting secondary sources), since this can reflect partiality.

Don’t Put the Cookies On the Floor

The stated goal for believers in the sanctification process is that they will have a more accurate and intimate knowledge of Christ (e.g., Eph 1:15-23). He chastises the Corinthians for immaturity and fleshliness (1 Cor 3:1-3), and for their lack of knowing God (1 Cor 15:34), and he challenges them to maturity in being of the same mind (1 Cor 1:10). Peter adds later that Paul’s writings include difficult things to understand but are inspired by God and are of wisdom (2 Pet 3:15-16). All Scripture is authoritative and useful (2 Tim 3:16-17), even if not always easy to understand. The teacher need not feel the burden of trying to simplify that which is not simple. The student bears the responsibility of investigating and coming to a deeper knowledge of the truth—as the Bereans modeled (Ac 17:11).

Some practical implications

  • Don’t dumb down what the text says.
  • Show your work. Model—don’t hide—your exegetical process.
  • Try to speak at a level just slightly above your audience, challenging them to reach up just a bit.
  • Remember that the goal is to teach your audience how to handle the word of God for themselves, so that they can study and grow on their own.

Maintain Priorities

Paul demonstrated a tremendous amount of humility in his preaching and teaching, acknowledging that Christ had not sent him to preach in cleverness of speech, but to proclaim the gospel (1 Cor 1:17, 2:1), so that the cross would not be emptied (kenoo) of its power. What a vital lesson this is: our focus is to be the message itself in all its simplicity, because the power is in the message, not the messenger.

Paul acknowledged being unskilled in speech (2 Cor 11:6), and he humbled himself for the Corinthians’ benefit (2 Cor 17), not demanding they support his ministry financially. He did not employ all the skills at his disposal, nor did he make demands of them related to his preaching/teaching ministry so that more important goals could be achieved. Paul was willing to stay out of the way so that God could work through His message. “For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Rom 15:18).

Some practical implications

  • Stick to the text, don’t wander or meander.
  • Don’t say everything you can say, just what should be said.
  • Don’t be the center of attention, let Him be that.
  • Remember the goal: preaching so that people can be introduced to Christ, teaching so that people can learn to handle the Bible for themselves, and grow to maturity.

Speak for Profit

One of the reasons for Paul’s critique of the Corinthians’ misuse of the gift of tongues was that it simply wasn’t profitable for the listener (1 Cor 14:6, 19). He adds later that all of his speaking to the Corinthians was in order that they might be built up (2 Cor 12:19).

Some practical implications

  • What we say should be intended to edify.
  • Some recognition of the need of the moment can be helpful.
  • Some recognition of the maturity (or lack thereof) of listeners can be helpful.
  • Remember that music also provides a means of teaching for profit. Ephesians 5:19 prescribes that believers be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Don’t neglect the didactic functions of song.

(To be continued.)

Christopher Cone 2015 Bio


Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.

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