Every preacher who stands behind a pulpit or on a street corner should desire to preach with authority. He should hope that when people hear him that they are rather hearing God speaking to them through him. He should long for his preaching to be effectual, moving people into obedient response to the Word of God.
For this is how Jesus preached. Following one of his sermons, this is the description of the response: “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
So how does one preach with authority? Certainly the preacher should pray that God would bestow authority upon him as he proclaims the gospel. Yet are there principles he can follow so that when he preaches he just does not sound like he is just attempting to be authoritative, but actually preaches with authority? I believe so, especially if we remember the context where this statement regarding Jesus’ preaching was made. The crowds were amazed at the teaching of Jesus as they heard the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Certainly there are unique ways Jesus taught on this occasion, as the Lord and Savior that He is, that the preacher cannot imitate. Jesus came as the new Moses, sitting on the mountainside as he addressed the crowds (Matthew 5:1). Several times he said “in former times you heard it was said” and quoted Scripture, then followed that with “but now I say to you,” revealing He spoke as the final, divine prophet of God. He made personal, ultimate pronouncements on people and their eternal state as the Judge of heaven (Matthew 5:20, 25-26; 6:15; 7:22-23). So there is an authority all his own by which the Lord preached.
Yet are there other qualities found in his message that the wise preacher can emulate? In the Sermon on the Mount at least five qualities of his preaching stand out that give authority to his message.
Grounded in Law. A large section of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus teaching on the moral law of God, addressing such matters as murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, justice, and enemies (Matthew 5:17-48). As he stated in the message, he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. When Jesus told his hearers their righteousness needed to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, he was not just speaking of the righteous standing justification by faith grants believers. Rather, he was proclaiming that faith in him requires a heart-based desire to obey his Law.
Because so much preaching avoids today the Old Testament and particularly the Law of God, it lacks the power and fear the Law is to give. How contrary that is to Jesus and his apostles who, as testified to by the Gospel, Acts, and the Epistles, continually returned to the Law in their teaching. It gave their messages thunder and firepower.
Overflowing with Mercy. Our Lord’s life, ministry, and teaching were filled with mercy, and the Sermon on the Mount is no exception. From pronouncing blessing on the poor in spirit and the merciful, to calling us to forgive our debtors, to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies, to give another mile to those who ask, Jesus both pronounces mercy to, and expects mercy from, his hearers. Just as Old Testament Law had embedded in it directives to care for the poor, the widow, and the needy, so this message abounds with directives to live a gracious life.
This in part explains the reaction of the crowd, who noticed Christ taught “not as their scribes.” These men used the Law to burden and oppress the people. Jesus showed how, through a renewed heart in faith and union with him, that God’s commands are not burdensome but light because they lead us to love others (I John 5:3).
Filled with Moral Imperative. Too much preaching, especially in Reformed camps, is indicative rather than imperative in nature. Men, afraid that they might be accused of being an Arminian if they call people to faith or a denier of justification by faith if they stress good works too much, settle for making their sermons little more than running commentaries over the text.
Near the beginning of his message, Jesus said the commands of Scripture are not to be relaxed and we are not to teach others to relax them or we will be deemed least in his kingdom. Rather, we are commanded to let our light shine by obeying and teaching his commands, which he offers in plentiful amount in this message. “Leave your gift at the altar.” “Be reconciled to your brother.” “Tear out your right eye.” “Do not resist one who is evil.” “Pray for your enemies.” That’s just a few from the fifth chapter, which ends with another one that could be viewed as quite a task. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Calling the congregation to obedience should not lead them to deny justification by faith, but to rely upon it!
Abounding in Illustrations. Read aloud Matthew 5-7 and you will find this exercise takes less time than listening to most men’s sermons. If and when you do read it out loud, listen to all of the illustrative language you hear packed into this message. Jesus speaks actively about such things as tearing out eyes, leaving a gift at the altar, getting slapped on the cheek, going two miles, paying the last penny, or how the sun and the rain fall on the just and unjust alike. He uses concrete imagery, talking about such wide and varied things as trumpets, eyes, lamps, moth, rust, birds, flowers, barns, thieves, specks, logs, fish, serpents, scorpions, sheep, wolves, fish, trees, rain, winds, flood…the list could go on. He tells little stories throughout, from guys praying on street corners to sons asking fathers for bread to ending with men building houses on rock and sand.
Like the true Solomon he was, Jesus was wise in the ways this world works and thus used its imagery to teach spiritual lessons. This makes sense, as he did create the world after all! His teaching did not contain just an occasional illustration, but was illustrative in its entire nature. Far from this illustrative language and these stories detracting from the message, they added authority to it by relating all of life to the teaching and relating all the teaching to life. People hearing this type of teaching know they do not have a dry academician on hand trying to get his talk stuffed into a scholarly journal somewhere, but a true preacher seeking to stuff their hearts with the very word of God. The godly preacher will be a student of the world and creation around him.
Glorifying the Father. All the previously mentioned elements may be present in a sermon, but if this final one is absent so will be the authority we should desire. For another highlight of this message of Jesus is his expressed desire to honor his heavenly Father.
In an article contained in the book The Beauty and Glory of the Father, Bill VanDoodewaard points out how saturated the Sermon on the Mount is with Jesus speaking of his and our heavenly Father. Some twenty references are made to the Father. In almost every instance, Jesus speaks of him as the “heavenly Father” or “our Father who is in heaven.” As he stated in other places, it is clear that Christ is not speaking here on his own initiative. Rather, he is telling us what the Father instructed him to do. Thus, his sermon rang with the power of a message from heaven because that is exactly what it was! Similarly, preachers’ hearts must be absolutely filled when they preach with an earnest desire as ambassadors to deliver the Father’s word to his people.
Then, and only then, will they preach with his authority.