The Holy Spirit and Preaching
Jesus Christ’s last words to His disciples before His ascension are instructive for all preachers for all times. He stressed at least two principal issues: (1) Jesus commanded His ministers to go to all people with the purpose of preaching the gospel (Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15). (2) He stressed the need for being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit before commencing the task of preaching the gospel (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4).1
Why? Preaching is a divine task, and divine tasks require divine power. It is impossible to separate the Holy Spirit from the preaching process when the latter is understood in biblical light.
The purpose of this article is to present several of the links between the Holy Spirit and the all-important duty of preaching.
Biblical Examples of the Holy Spirit and Preaching
A few selected incidents from the Bible where the Holy Spirit came upon people and moved them to speak for God will help our focus.
Concerning Saul’s being named and anointed king over Israel, Samuel told Saul, “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy…and…be changed into a different person” (1 Samuel 10:6).2 As Samuel predicted, Saul prophesied—evidently in a compelling way (1 Samuel 10:10,11).3
The Book of Acts is replete with accounts of the apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit and then preaching the gospel. For example, three times in Acts Luke recorded that Peter was filled with the Spirit (2:14; 4:8; 4:31) and preached the gospel of Christ.4 Luke used the passive voice of the verb in each verse to demonstrate the Spirit was the active agent of power, not Peter.
Pentecostals have long maintained that to be filled with the Spirit, one must first be emptied of self. This principle and its relationship to preaching is evident in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. When Paul first went to Corinth, he said he came in astheneia, phobos, and tromos (1 Corinthians 2:3). The first of these words, astheneia (weakness), occurs 25 times in the New Testament. Of those occurrences, eight are in the two Corinthian letters. Of those eight, Paul used the word six times to describe himself. Two of those passages are found in 1 Corinthians 2:3–5 and 2 Corinthians 12:7–10.
Three specifics tie these passages together: (1) Both are autobiographical in nature. (2) Both express the “power of God through human weakness” motif. (3) Both passages use the Greek word hina(“so that”). If I were to paraphrase the two passages, the first would read, “When I was in Corinth, I had little confidence in myself. Therefore, I relied on the Holy Spirit so that your faith would not be in me but in the power of God.” The second could be paraphrased, “The Lord told me His power is greater in human weakness. Therefore, I am glad about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
It is difficult or nearly impossible to argue that Paul was not dependent upon the Holy Spirit in his life and specifically in his preaching, for the Spirit was his source of power in preaching.
A final example of a biblical personality who was dependent upon the Holy Spirit for His preaching is none other than our Lord Jesus. When chronicling the early days of Jesus’ ministry, each of the Synoptics follows the same order: water baptism, anointing from the Spirit, temptation, and (finally) preaching. The descent of the Spirit preceded Jesus’ proclamation of the Word.
Erroneous Ideas About the Holy Spirit and Preaching
At least two erroneous ideas about the Holy Spirit and preaching need to be addressed and corrected for Pentecostal preachers:
Appealing to Matthew 10:19, one erroneous idea argues that since a preacher can be filled with the Holy Spirit, that eliminates the need for preparation prior to preaching. The context does not address preaching directly. The passage has one principal, exegetical thought: The Christian may depend upon God to help him in any situation.
To illustrate, if you are planning to build a small doghouse, you must first cut the boards to proper lengths. Would you rather use a dull or a sharp saw? Similarly, the preacher is a tool in God’s hand. Do you think God would prefer a dull or a sharp tool? While there may be exceptions, a prepared preacher is usually a sharper tool in God’s hand than an unprepared one. (Remember, rules are built from normal situations, not exceptional ones.)
People can go to extremes, and preachers are not exempted from that tendency. Some Pentecostal preachers may rely only on their preparation and little else. Others distrust too much preparation and put their trust in unction or the anointing alone. Why must a preacher view these two aspects as either/or? It is more biblical and wiser for the preacher to embrace them as both/and (see in combination Mark 12:30; 2 Timothy 2:15; 1 John 2:20).
Another erroneous idea concerning the Spirit’s involvement with preaching is that the Holy Spirit will do all the work of applying the Word which is preached. I have heard preachers end their sermons by saying, “Now, may the Holy Spirit apply this message to our hearts.” The preacher who ends a sermon with those words is not being fair to the minister’s calling or the congregation. If God is using you to preach the sermon, He can certainly use you to apply the Scripture to the people. The preacher who does not apply the sermon is like a ball carrier running the football to within 10 yards of the goal line and then asking the fans to carry it the rest of the way.
Apostolic preachers rigorously and fearlessly applied their sermons to their hearers through the power of the Spirit (see Acts 2:36–40; 3:14–20; 24:25). As Pentecostal preachers, we ought to do the same—totally depend upon the Holy Spirit. Our applications should be clear, precise, personal, and accurate.5
Why the Holy Spirit is Needed in Preaching
Preaching is divine work. It follows logically that a preacher certainly needs God’s power to do God’s work. One of God’s power agents is the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).
Since the Holy Spirit is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, the preacher needs the Spirit’s abilities before, during, and after the sermon. For example, the Spirit is able to lead an itinerant preacher where to preach (Acts 16:6–10). The Spirit is also equipped to guide a preacher concerning what to preach, for He is the Spirit of wisdom (Isaiah 11:2).
Spurgeon, addressing this issue, said: “Certain important doctrines of the gospel can be so proclaimed in excess as to throw the rest of truth into the shade, and the preaching is no longer the gospel in its natural beauty…. The Spirit of God will teach you the use of the sacrificial knife to divide the offerings.”6
Another important reason why the Holy Spirit is needed in preaching is contained in the Old Testament sheliachprinciple. (The word is derived from the Hebrew word shalach; that is, “to send.”) In Old Testament theology, this principle stated that when a lesser person was sent to perform a task for a greater person, the lesser carried the authority of the greater. For example, when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24), he invested his servant with full authority (see verse 9).
The sheliach principle may also be observed in Exodus 3 and 4 as God sent and equipped Moses to return to Egypt as His spokesman. Jesus also employed this principle as He sent His disciples out (Matthew 10). Since authority is an essential in preaching God’s Word, ministers today must not only know that God has called them but that God has sent them and is with them.
Anyone who has preached for a period of time knows the difference between preaching with and without the power of the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit anoints you to preach, there is power and blessing. Billy Graham calls it preaching so “another Voice is heard.”7When you preach in your own strength and skill, the results are embarrassingly sparse. That contrast, which any experienced preacher understands, is the reason every preacher needs the Holy Spirit in preparation and presentation of the sermon.
Challenges Concerning the Holy Spirit and Our Preaching
The dedicated Pentecostal preacher is always ready to receive new challenges to be a better communicator. Some of the challenges we face in this generation concerning the Holy Spirit and our preaching are:
1. All preachers ought to prepare themselves by allowing the Holy Spirit to make them holy. Perhaps God’s church has known no greater model of a godly, righteous pastor than Puritan Richard Baxter, who exhorted ministers to be holy through the power of the Spirit: “Take heed to yourself...lest you unsay with your lives what you say with your tongues....We must study as hard how to live well as how to preach well.”8
2. Pentecostal preachers should take seriously the challenge to preach the Word. After all, the Spirit only promises to anoint and bless God’s Word, not our words. Let us draw a fine, clear line between oratory and preaching. Oratory may be included in preaching, but preaching doesn’t automatically encompass oratory.
A preacher is interested in announcing God’s Word. At ordination, a candidate is handed a Bible, not a Reader’s Digest. Biblical preachers proclaim the Scripture. That is what the Holy Spirit attends. The preacher’s God-given task is to deliver the goods, not to manufacture them. To use an analogy, the preacher is a waiter, not the chef.
3. Preachers must be open to the work of the Spirit in our churches and services. It is possible to be caught up in gimmicks and manipulations in preaching. Such activity is a clear sign of the lack of faith in the power of the Spirit and God’s sovereignty. By trying to build churches by ourselves, we can actually find ourselves in competition with the One who alone can build His church (Matthew 16:18).
The supernatural power of the Holy Spirit must be welcomed into the pulpit and the entire church if the present-day body of Christ is to fulfill her New Testament portrait.
Gordon Fee prophetically wrote: “It is perhaps an indictment of Western Christianity that we should consider mature our rather totally cerebral and domesticated—but bland—brand of faith with the concomitant absence of the Spirit in terms of His supernatural gifts. The Spirit, not Western rationalism, marks the turning of the ages, after all; and to deny the Spirit’s manifestations is to deny our present existence to be eschatological, as belonging to the beginning of the time of the end.”9
To Fee’s words, add Spurgeon’s passionate plea:
“If we do not have the Spirit of God, it were better to shut the churches, to nail up the doors, to put a black cross on them, and say, ‘God have mercy on us!’ If you ministers have not the Spirit of God, you had better not preach…. A church in the land without the Spirit of God is rather a curse than a blessing. If you have not the Spirit of God…you stand in somebody else’s way…. This is a solemn work—the Holy Spirit or nothing and worse than nothing.”10
Certain things in life are nice; a few things are necessary. The Holy Spirit in a person’s preaching ministry absolutely must be placed into the category labeled “necessary.” Propagandists might depend upon glittering half-truths to sway the masses and disguise their weak ideologies, but ministers of the gospel need the power of the Holy Spirit upon their sermons to break through sin and lead people into life.
Once a friend of the great Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, said to him, “You preached today as if you had come straight from God’s presence.” Whyte answered softly, “Perhaps I did.” That was just it; he had! That was Whyte’s secret of power. Really it’s no secret at all. There is an open door and a straight path to the presence of God where preachers can find the Spirit of God, who will empower them to preach the Word of God.
Thomas Lindberg, D.Min., is pastor of First Assembly of God Memphis, Cordova, Tennessee.
1. There are many names in the Bible for the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Just within the first two chapters of Acts, the experience of Pentecost was described as “the promise of the Father” (1:4), “being baptized with the Holy Spirit” (1:5), “receiving power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8), “being filled with the Spirit” (2:4), and a “pouring out of the Spirit” (2:17). Thomas Smail wrote an excellent word to this battle over slogans: “By whatever name—receive!” Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christian and Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 137.
2. All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
3. Pentecostals have regularly maintained that the Holy Spirit operated in people’s lives differently in the Old Testament in contrast to the New Testament. It is not the purpose of this paper to examine that difference, but the promise of Jesus in John 14:17 marked a new era in the Spirit’s residency within the believer. For a sound discussion on the work of the Holy Spirit upon individuals before Pentecost, see Leon Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 39-77.
4. One of the significant advances in New Testament scholarship in recent years has been C.H. Dodd’s crystallization of the early kerygma. Dodd demonstrated that the central message of apostolic preaching was the person and work of Christ. He noted five emphases: the fulfillment of OT Scripture about the Messiah’s coming, the early life of Jesus, His death, His exaltation, and repentance toward God and faith in Christ because of coming, certain judgment. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (New York: Harper and Row, 1944).
5. As Pentecostals, most of us are willing to build theology and draw application from narrative sections of Scripture. See Roger Stronstad, “The Biblical Precedent for Historical Precedent” Paraclete27 (Summer 1993). One word of caution, however: An accurate application from the Bible cannot be based solely upon the fact that “so and so” in the Scripture did or said something; and, therefore, we ought to do or say the same thing. One biblical scholar wrote, “Avoid especially the principle of imitation (the idea that because someone in the Bible does it, we can or ought to do it too). This is the most dangerous and irreverent of all approaches to application, since virtually every sort of behavior—stupid and wise, malicious and saintly—is chronicled in the Bible.” Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 73.
6. Spurgeon, Lectures, 189.
7. Graham, “Communicate Gospel,” 30.
8. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979 rep. ed.), 63-68.
9. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 645.
10. Charles Spurgeon, quoted in D.L. Moody Secret Power (Ventura: Regal Books, 1987 rep. ed. of 1881), 70.