If you follow someone on Facebook, you can learn some interesting things about them. You might learn about where they went to school, some of their favourite foods, where they holidayed last summer, and some of the causes they are passionate about. But that is a far cry from knowing them personally. A Facebook “friend” may not be a very personal friend.
In the same way, we can know a lot about Jesus and “follow” him as our “friend” and yet still not know him very personally. We can know about him, but we do not really know him.
We can know a lot about Jesus and ‘follow’ him as our ‘friend’ and yet still not know him very personally.
Preachers can actually aid and abet an impersonal knowledge of Jesus by preaching about Christ while not actually preaching Christ. They present his Facebook page rather than personally introducing people to Jesus.
Preaching about Christ
When we preach about Christ, we impart vital biblical truth concerning who Jesus is and what he came to do. If we are preaching from the Old Testament, we may take time to show how the text ultimately points to him. We build the biblical theological bridge from the Old to the New. When we preach from the New Testament, we may open up rich dimensions of his person and work. We may explain something of the incarnation, his human and divine natures, his humiliation and exaltation, the atonement or the resurrection.
Such preaching takes theology and biblical theology seriously and helps deepen people’s grasp of Christ, the gospel and the Scriptures. But we must reckon with the fact that when we have done this as well as we possibly can, we have only done half our job. Unfortunately, many preachers think that is the whole job. If they have successfully proven that Christ is the fulfilment of the text, or they have clearly taught about who he is and what he came into our world to do, they believe they have preached Christ. But they haven’t. They have only preached about Christ. More, though not less, needs to be done.
I once heard a preacher pray before he preached, “Lord, help me to preach an irresistible Christ.” That should be our heart’s desire. We don’t just want to preach true information about Christ; we want to present him to people in the most compelling way we can so that they come to love him, praise him, trust him and desire to know him better. Preaching about Christ informs our minds, but preaching Christ brings him close to us so that we can grow in relationship with him.
I once heard a preacher pray before he preached, ‘Lord, help me to preach an irresistible Christ.’ That should be our heart’s desire.
Ultimately, of course, only the Spirit of God can impress the facts of the gospel on people’s hearts in a life-changing way. But the Spirit works through the words of preachers and commissions them to proclaim Christ, not just present information about him. Paul said to the Colossians, “Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1.28).
Two useful ways in which we can preach Christ to people’s hearts are to hold him out and hold him up.
Hold Christ out
To hold him out to people is to present him as the one we need above all else. We offer Christ as the bread of life we must feed on, the spring of living water who can alone quench our thirst. As we do this, we may speak to people about their soul appetites. We speak to the guilty of how Christ offers forgiveness, or to the weary of how he understands us and carries our load. We speak to those who feel like outcasts of how he came into the world to be rejected in our place, so that we might be accepted by God, even if all people should reject us. We speak to the rich and proud of how he chose to abandon supreme wealth and honour in order to rescue us from the futility of worldly wealth and human pride.
There are endless ways in which we may take an aspect of the person and work of Jesus and apply it to the particular sins, needs or desires of people. Suppose we are preaching about Christ as the friend of sinners. Having explained that wonderful gospel truth we can then press it on people. It might sound like this:
If you hate your sin, and feel guilty about it, and wish with all your heart that you were free of it, you need to know this wonderful truth. Jesus is the friend of sinners, of people just like you, feeling just what you are feeling.
He won’t reject you or turn away from you because of your sin. He came for sinners; he came for people like you. He came to stand in your place and take that load of guilt for you. No sin will shock him or cause him to reject you. It’s the opposite. He was shockingly put to death for our sins. He was rejected in our place.
So you can talk to him about your sin, your guilt, your desires. You will find he is more compassionate, more caring, more understanding than any person you have ever met. More than that, you will discover that he is able to free you, cleanse you, change you. He can do that because he died for you and rose to new life for you. He is a friend like no other.
That’s one way of preaching Christ. We hold him out to people as their only Saviour and Lord. Another way is to hold Christ up.
Hold Christ Up
To hold Christ up is to exalt him so that people are drawn to admire and adore him. This sounds a doxological note in our preaching. It is preaching that echoes Psalm 8:1 “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” We do not stop at explaining his person and work, but we praise it, honour it and lift it up.
To hold Christ up is to exalt him so that people are drawn to admire and adore him. We do not stop at explaining his person and work, but we praise it, honour it and lift it up.
At the end of Romans 8 Paul does this as he proclaims Christ’s incomparable love. The one who died for us, who was raised for us, and who is interceding for us, is one from whom we can never be separated. Paul surveys all that might possibly separate us from him, both in heaven and on earth, in life and in death, and declares that absolutely nothing can sever the bond of his love. There are no imperatives here; no calls for action. Just cause for praise, gratitude and deep assurance.
This has historically been a prominent note of powerful expository preaching. But what does it sound like for us? To return to the example of preaching Jesus as the friend of sinners, we could now hold him up before our hearers:
Why should you turn to Christ as the friend of sinners? Why not run to your girlfriend or boyfriend, your teacher, your counsellor, your best friend? They are all good people, but none of them come even close to who Jesus Christ is.
He is a friend who will not judge you, for he took the judgement for you. He is a friend who laid down his life for you and who voluntarily bore your eternal judgement.
He is a friend who is all-knowing. He knows your deepest needs, your darkest secrets, your greatest desires. He knows you and loves you.
He is a friend who will never leave you or forsake. He will never let you down because he is perfect. Perfectly faithful, perfectly patient, perfectly loving. He will never grow tired or weary of you.
And not only is he a friend of endless grace and love. He is a friend of supreme power, sovereign over every temptation and every kind of opposition you face.
As a friend, he constantly intercedes for you, is praying for you before the throne of his Father in heaven. He is a friend in the highest place. He is a divine friend. There really is no other friend like him.
Holding Christ up and holding Christ out takes time and effort. Expository preachers will often find that all their time, in preparation and preaching, is taken up with explaining the text. But that means they only have time to preach about Christ and not to actually preach Christ. The real joy of Christ-centred preaching is taking all the text teaches us about Christ, and then pressing it on people as winsomely as we can so that, by God’s grace, they may come to the point where they say, “I consider my life worth nothing, if only I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:10). Our hearers don’t only need to know more about Jesus. They need to know, trust and love him as the one who is like no other.