Let the Spirit Guide Your Preaching
Because the Holy Spirit is best able to match biblical text with contemporary context, it is important to learn to pay attention to the Spirit’s guidance.
by George O. Wood
When I was a young campus pastor at Evangel University (then a college), I asked three great pioneer leaders of the Assemblies of God to share their testimony of salvation and baptism in the Holy Spirit with the students. I only wish we could have recorded what Ernest S. Williams, Noel Perkin, and J. Roswell Flower shared.
Those names may not be familiar to some. Flower was the first general secretary of the Assemblies of God and played a formative role in its development. Perkin guided Assemblies of God World Missions for decades of substantive formation and growth. Williams served as general superintendent (1929–49). During his leadership through the Great Depression and World War II, the Assemblies of God more than tripled.
I will never forget how then-88-year-old Williams began his testimony. He said, “In all my years of ministry I have never publicly shared how I came to Christ or was baptized in the Spirit.”
I asked myself, How could that be?
Then, he explained. “I was concerned since I was a leader that if I shared my experience others might feel if they experienced it differently they were incomplete.”
Known for his humility and modesty, Brother Williams felt that his experience should not be a pattern by which others assessed their spirituality.
I have borrowed from his example in sharing how the Spirit leads me in preaching. My testimony may not be your testimony. There are many preaching styles, and there are many ways the Spirit leads us in the journey from sermon selection and preparation to pulpit and delivery. But here is my experience.
When I was in seminary, I now realize the Spirit was leading me in a way of which I was not conscious. While we treasure the charismatic sense of the Spirit’s speaking, sometimes His leading happens in a rather mundane way.
I moved frequently in my years as a missionary kid, pastor’s kid, and evangelist’s kid. The longest I ever lived in one place was a little over 2 years; that was the exception to the rule. Most stops were shorter — some as short as 3 weeks. That meant changing schools often and not having deep or long-lasting friendships. I longed to stay in one place for a long time.
In the seminary library I was reading an article in Christianity Today by W.A. Criswell. At that time, he was completing 25 years of ministry at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas (he would ultimately serve over 50 years). He explained that at the start of his ministry there he began preaching expositionally through the Bible, and over those 25 years he had finished preaching through the entire Book.
I thought, If that’s the secret to staying in one place for a long time, then I want to preach expositionally. So, as pastor at Newport-Mesa Christian Center for 17 years, that is what I did. I preached through books of the Bible. People could date their first time at the church by remembering what chapter and verse of what book I was in.
I loved expository preaching. I never fumbled around week-to-week trying to figure out what to preach next. The text was always before me, and in every sermon I had to ask and answer two questions: “What did the text say?” (i.e., exegesis and hermeneutics) and “What does the text say?” (i.e., illustration and application).
My first 6 months as pastor I preached through the Gospel of John. My sermons were awful. I had come straight out of the classroom, and my messages were lectures without application. No wonder one third of the congregation exited.
As I prayed about what would follow the Book of John in the fall of 1971, I felt the Spirit say, “Preach through the Book of Leviticus.” I dismissed that impression — for four good reason.
First, I told the Lord, “I don’t understand the book. Second, I’m not a typologist and don’t see the significance of every color of thread in the tabernacle. Third, New Year resolutions to read the Bible through in the coming year break down in the wilderness of Leviticus. And fourth, I can’t even read Leviticus 15 out loud (dealing with bodily emissions), let alone preach from it.”
I felt the Lord say, “Start out and I will show you what to do when you get there.”
With reluctance I obeyed the Spirit’s prompting. Through Leviticus 1 to 7 and the five types of offerings, I gained a substantive understanding of the Atonement. I sailed through chapters 8 to 14. Then came chapter 15. You should have been in the congregation the day I read it aloud. If you want to silence a congregation, read Leviticus 15 to them. You could have heard a pin drop. But the Spirit showed me how to deal with the text. So, I began: “You may be here today and feel like God does not know you, or you may wonder if God exists, or if He is Aristotle’s UnMoved Mover. But I am here to tell you from this chapter about ‘A Very Personal God.’ He is so personal that He placed a whole chapter in the Bible to let you know He designed your plumbing system and knows all about you.”
Incredible things happened during the months I was in Leviticus — including the fact the church tripled in attendance.
Ten years later I felt the Spirit prompting me to preach through Leviticus a second time. Again, I protested. We were meeting in temporary quarters. Our new facilities were under construction. I was concerned that a series in Leviticus could have a negative impact on attendance. But, again the Spirit was right. I will never forget the Sunday I preached from Leviticus 13 and 14 — on skin diseases (KJV calls it leprosy).
I talked about the variety of skin diseases covered by the passage — including eczema, psoriasis, Hansen’s disease, and leprosy. A husband and wife were visiting that day for the first time. They had seen the church sign outside and decided to give it a try. Unbeknown to anyone in the church or to me the husband had a serious condition of psoriasis. The doctors had considered skin transplants on his legs and rejected doing that out of fear the condition would come back under the new skin. Three nights a week he would apply cortisone cream to his legs and then wrap them in saran wrap. He suffered a lot. He listened in amazement as I preached from a passage about skin disease. I gave an invitation for people to come forward and be prayed for — whether for salvation, healing, baptism in the Spirit, or a personal need. He did not come forward that Sunday, but he returned the next Sunday and came forward. As the elders prayed for him, he was instantly healed and saved at the same time. He and his wife became two of the most faithful lay workers in the church.
How could I have planned that on my own? How could I have timed a passage on skin disease with the arrival of a visitor with psoriasis? That was the Spirit.
I saw the same kind of coincidence (I prefer the term God-incidence) in preaching through the Ten Commandments. A 15-year-runaway girl showed up on the Sunday I was on the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” Consequently, she reunited with her parents.
We have a tradition in Pentecostal churches that the Spirit cannot plan in advance. Some in our past even refused to prepare or study for a sermon. They were of the mindset that all a preacher had to do was open his mouth and the Lord would fill it.
But we know now the Spirit can plan in advance as well as ad hoc. In expository preaching, the Holy Spirit can design the text to arrive at the exact moment as the need in people’s lives.
Whether you preach expositionally, topically, or textually — every form of preaching should have a sense that the preacher must be listening to the Spirit. The Spirit may speak through an impression in prayer, a commentary, a life experience, or an illustration. But the Spirit’s main delivery system for the preacher is the Word of God. You will never run out of things to preach if your focus is on listening to God in His Word and applying what you are learning to your life and those you lead.
When I stepped out of pastoring, I became somewhat adrift in my preaching because I could no longer do expositional series. For the past 23 years, I am pretty much in a different church every week. Each week I must get a sense of, “What does the Spirit want me to focus on for this congregation?”
I faced that question in the General Councils of 2009 and 2011. Tuesday night is the traditional time for the message from the general superintendent. As much as I like to preach in series, I knew it was important that I not try to preach four sermons in one outline. Never having had the responsibility before to preach the opening nights of General Council, I struggled.
You may remember that I preached from the life of Leah in 2009. My experience in preaching from her life is akin to my 1971 experience of preaching from Leviticus. I felt an impression that I should preach about Leah. My instant reaction was, “No. I do not think her life has anything to say to me — and certainly not for a sermon at General Council.”
But I could not shake the impression — which I now know was from the Holy Spirit. After months of her name continually coming to my mind, I decided to at least read the little bit there is about her life in Genesis. I saw nothing relevant that I could use in a General Council sermon, so I laid the impression on the shelf.
But her name kept coming back. So I trolled through every commentary looking to see if anything would jump out at me. A few thoughts began to form, but they were not overwhelming. I laid it on the shelf again.
Still, the impression to preach about Leah would not go away. I kept praying about it, thinking about it, and studying her story in the Bible. Then slowly things began to unfold. I took copious notes. I jotted down thoughts, I prayed, and the Scripture opened to me. I began to see that her story really is played out all the way to the Book of Revelation. Her life became to me an amazing illustration of how God uses the tough times in our lives. During our lifetime we may not see all that God is doing, but if we persevere, there will be a legacy of faith left to others.
The same thing happened as I readied my 2011 General Council sermon. About a year beforehand, I began to sense a prompting from the Holy Spirit to preach from the Book of Haggai.
To be totally transparent, the only time I had every delved into Haggai was on the fly as part of a Wednesday night series on the Minor Prophets. As far as I was concerned, Haggai truly was minor. At the time the prompting first came, I could not even tell you what the Book of Haggai was about or the issues addressed in his prophecy.
But the Spirit kept nudging, “Spend some time in Haggai. Preach from Haggai at General Council.”
So I began to read Haggai, and like the Leviticus series and the Leah sermon, I resisted. The more I read Haggai, the more I balked. For one thing, I felt it was too long a text to preach at a General Council. By the time I finished reading the text to the audience, half my time would be shot. Then, there were parts of Haggai that were the Mount Everest of biblical interpretation. How can the issues of consecrated meat and dead bodies talked about in Haggai’s third message (2:10–14) even relate to a contemporary audience? I would shoot another 10 to 15 minutes just trying to explain that passage. And worse, I did not at the time understand the text myself. What would I do with Haggai’s four sermons that talk about Zerubbabel being a signet ring (2:20–23)? Who was Zerubbabel and what was a signet ring? How would that apply?
So I shelved the idea of preaching from Haggai. However, the Spirit would not let me drop it. The notion kept coming to me, “Preach from Haggai. Keep looking. You have not yet seen what you need to see.”
I have learned over the years that sermon preparation involves as much, if not more, perspiration than inspiration. It requires hard work to dig the message out the text. I got my hands on every commentary and sermon I could find on Haggai. I knew there were some good parts, like 1:4, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” That will preach to anyone prompted to put self-interests above God’s interests. And then there was 2:9, “ ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty.” I like that. I do believe these latter days of the Assemblies of God will be even greater than the beginning days.
Slowly the book began to open up to me. I discovered why the Spirit wanted me to preach from Haggai. He wanted four issues dealt with from Haggai’s four prophecies: delay, discouragement, defilement, and destiny. [See George O. Wood's Haggai and Leah sermons above.]
I wish I could give you a three-step, or a five-step, or a multi-step teaching on how to listen to the Spirit. I do not expect that my way of listening to the Spirit will necessarily be the way the Spirit speaks to your heart. It is important that you find the cadence by which you march to the Spirit’s drumbeat.
Study in His Word is essential. The Spirit speaks through His Word. Prayer is vital. You cannot do without it. Study is absolutely necessary. You also need to take time to stew — to let the process of Bible reading, prayer, and study gestate in your mind and heart. Listen to the still small voice; pay attention to impressions. Instincts can be Spirit-generated and not just whimsical notions.
Finally, the sermon exists as a delivery mechanism to impact the hearer. I encourage you to have the kind of message that responds to the statement made to Peter by Cornelius, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (Acts 10:33).
If we, in our preaching, can respond as did Peter, then we will also see the same kind of impact. Powerless preaching will produce vapid and ineffective saints; preaching that comes with the Spirit’s direction and anointing results in changed lives. You preach to people who are gathered together in God’s presence to hear what He has commanded you to say.