/ preaching / Barry York

The Use of the Imperative in Jesus' Preaching

As a homiletics professor, I think about preaching a great deal. But recently I have even more so. This month I taught an intensive Doctor of Ministry class on preaching. I am preparing to address the subject of preaching and holiness at an upcoming conference. I regularly evaluate men and their sermons. Whenever I am able, I take the opportunity to preach myself. I love to encourage God's people with His Word, and coach others in doing so as well.

But the main teacher of preaching I try to consistently point my students to is Jesus Himself. He is the Master Preacher. He is the living Word who not only preached the kingdom of God and gave His very life for it, but shows us how to proclaim that message to others. He is both the true subject and instructor of homiletics.

One key lesson to learn from Jesus in preaching is this one. You must address your audience directly. Jesus used the imperative in preaching. In other words, He often used the second person.

Young preachers tend to draw back from the use of the second person in preaching. They hesitate to use the direct address of saying "You" to their hearers. Yet they are not alone. Many Reformed preachers have this tendency as well, preferring the "safety" of the third person, lecture-style of preaching. We need to remember the exhortation of John Angell James:

Our hearers must be made to feel that they are not merely listening to the discussion of a subject—but to an appeal to themselves—their attention must be kept up, and a close connection between them and the preacher maintained, by the frequent introduction of the pronoun “you,” so that each may realize the thought that the discourse is actually addressed to him. Many preachers do not come near enough to their congregations.

Jesus certainly came near to His hearers. A prime example of Jesus' methodology in preaching is found in His most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount. I went through His message to look at His use of the imperative, and the results are quite amazing. Using the English Standard Version (I chose not to make this a Greek study but looked at Jesus' sermon as an English listener might do with a message), I color-coded in this document the first, second, and third person sentences Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount. The results? Of the 117 sentences this sermon contains, Jesus used the first person 14 times, the third person 47 times, and the second person 56 times. In this message, Jesus predominately used the second person, as nearly half (48%) of His sentences are imperative in nature.

A few other observations along these lines:

In looking at Jesus preaching, we see that Jesus defines its Biblical nature. Preaching, as defined in the Scriptures, is not only the impartation of knowledge and information but the proclamation of moral duty. The message of the gospel is to be heralded, with the listeners understanding they are to repent, believe, and obey the Lord Jesus. You cannot read the Sermon on the Mount without the sense that Jesus was imposing upon His hearers moral obligations. Paul charged Timothy to preach the Word, then told him with strong, active verbs what preaching is: "reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). Certainly we see these emphases in our Lord's preaching.

Even when Jesus used the third person, He clearly had the congregation in view. As the message starts out with all of the "Blessed are those...), Jesus uses the rhetorical device known as anaphora, where each sentence begins the same. Many of his third person sentences are illustratively setting up commands, such as "Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house" (Matt. 5:15); or "For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45); or the concluding illustration about the wise and foolish men. A number of these sentences, though appropriately labeled third person, still use the second person pronoun to engage the hearer, such as "And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:4) or "Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?" (Matt. 7:9).

When Jesus used the first person, He still was addressing His hearers. A number of the sentences that are technically first person are still rhetorically aimed at the hearers. Numerous times Jesus says, "But I say to you", showing what followed was pointed right at His listeners. His strongest words against the lawless read this way: "I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’"

The Lord's Prayer even instructs us in this regard. As I noted in the document, I did not count each sentence petition in the Lord's Prayer in this exercise. For the Lord commands His disciples to pray by this model then gives them the pattern to follow. Yet I also note the petitions in this prayer are all in the second person. Think about it. The Lord commands us to use the imperative as we approach God in prayer. Are we to do less when we approach men in preaching?

Those listening that day expressed amazement over Jesus's teaching, "for He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:29). The Lord did not just talk about the kingdom of God. He called His listeners into its reality and His dominion. Preachers today would do well not only to preach Jesus to their people, but, asking for the Spirit He promised in this message (Matt. 7:11; see Luke 11:13), seek earnestly to preach like Him.

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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