Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

Two Pulpits (Jan – Jun 1995)

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by Milton Jones
January – June, 1995

Two pulpits with two signs. From one I listened. From the other I speak. One was mammoth and elevated. The other is little more than a lectern. From one I learned the emphasis. From the other I learned the effect.

Considering that most pulpits don’t have signs, it is a little unusual that the two most significant pulpits in my life both had signs on them. The signs were not billboards on the front advertising an aspect of the church’s ministry, or even messages to instruct the church in its response to God. No, the two signs were little reminders mounted on the top of the pulpits where only the speaker could see them. But these little signs have become monumental in my mind and philosophy of preaching.

THE EMPHASIS: “Sir, We Would See Jesus.”

The first sign is on the pulpit of the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. I heard messages from this pulpit from 1972 to 1978. These were the formative years for my ministry as I listened to preaching as a college student and later as a campus minister.

After hearing that there was a sign on the pulpit, one day I dared to sneak up and take a peek. There on an inexpensive plastic sign were the words, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was a comment and a call to every person who would ever step behind that pulpit. It was a sobering and significant challenge to any preacher that what needed to be seen and heard from that pulpit was none other than the Lord Jesus himself. Jesus was to be the emphasis of that pulpit.

Knowing that numerous great preachers had stood behind that pulpit, I often wondered who was responsible for the sign. I discovered that it wasn’t one of the preachers. Instead, it was “Big” Don Williams who was the youth minister at Broadway at the time. He said, “I put it there because it is so easy for a preacher to lose focus in a sermon. He may do a lesson to appease the people or to appeal to the people when the purpose of the sermon is to share Jesus with the people.”

This reminder is definitely needed not only for preachers but also for listeners. How many have left a church assembly more with the thought of “what a good sermon” rather than “what a good Lord”? It is the problem of preachers with big egos who fall into the trap of finding their identity based upon compliments of their sermons. But it is equally the problem of listeners who care too much for pulpit flash and charisma and not enough about character and the cross. Preachers and congregations can develop an unhealthy mutual admiration society where the ultimate issues and consequences of the cross are often avoided.

Preachers don’t last. Jesus does. During a preachers’ meeting in Washington, an older man circulated a photograph throughout the crowd. After all of us had looked at it, he asked if any of us could identify the man in the picture. Not a single one of us could, and yet, nearly every one of us was preaching at a church where the man in the photograph had previously preached. J. C. Bunn considered himself an evangelist of the state of Washington and traveled, preached, and planted churches all over the state. He was still preaching frequently in the church where I now preach until he died in 1978 at the age of 96. And yet not one of us in that audience recognized him. Brother Bunn has left us. The message of the Christ that he proclaimed is still alive and well in the pulpits where he preached. J. C. Bunn may be forgotten, but Jesus is still being remembered. “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Another mistake we can make is to think that the church is the message. Too often the message coming from the pulpit has much more to do with the church than the Christ. The central message can be focused on the church in differing ways. In some cases, the focal message of the sermon is that we are the right church. It is true that the church is important and that Jesus shed his blood for her. But the church is the result of the cross, not the central message. We are the church. He is the Christ. I don’t’ know how many “gospel” meetings I’ve been to where the main message to the non-Christian is that we are the only church rather than Jesus is the only Savior.

Another way to make the same mistake is to become the super-church which markets itself and its ministries to the point that the church is promoted more than the Christ is lifted up. I am all for exciting church assemblies and think that it is wrong for many of our meetings to be so boring. But it would be ever so easy to convert someone to a moving worship service, and still not have that person be converted to the Christ. “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

And it is all too easy for the message of the day to replace the message of the cross. In an age of self-help, it is very easy to take today’s pop psychology, dress it with a few Bible verses and get a popular and motivational message. But it won’t be enough to solve the ultimate need of the listeners. It is true that psychology can help us with many of our problems, and it is good to get some counsel when we face life’s dilemmas. But the audacity of the message of Christianity and gospel preaching is that it is saying that Jesus alone can solve your ultimate problem. No one else can. “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

According to Paul, this message of the gospel is central in our preaching. “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By the gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Only in Jesus himself do we find the gospel.

When I was taking a graduate course in Romans, Dr. Stephen Eckstein translated Romans 1:16 this way: “I am not ashamed of the gospel for in him is the power of God for salvation….” Several of us thought he had mistranslated and we asked, “Shouldn’t that ‘him’ be ‘it’?”

Dr. Eckstein replied, “The gospel is not an it. Jesus is the gospel.” He was correct. Too many sermons have acted like the gospel was an organizational chart of the church, or steps we take to become Christians, but these things are not the gospel. Jesus alone provides the dynamic for our faith. Other things may be interesting and useful topics, but Jesus himself is the source of our power.

Years ago, a woman left our congregation in Seattle and told the elders she was leaving because I no longer preached the gospel. I had been preaching expository sermons directly out of John for over a year. But I knew what she meant. She was looking for a sermon every week where she heard specific steps on what to do to be saved or what she called “first principles.” What she forgot was that Jesus himself is the first principle. “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

THE EFFECT: “What Would Jesus Do?”

The second pulpit which has dramatically influenced me is the one at the Northwest Church of Christ in Seattle where I have preached since 1978. From this pulpit, I have learned that there is not only an emphasis on seeing Jesus, but there is also a response. The little sign on the Northwest pulpit asks the striking question “What Would Jesus Do?”

This sign was put on the pulpit in response to a sermon that I preached many years ago. As I looked down the aisle during the invitation song, I could see Bill Roberts making his way to the front. We were singing “Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow.”

My sermon had been based on Charles Sheldon’s classic book In His Steps. It’s the story of a preacher, Henry Maxwell, who, upon neglecting to help a down-and-outer who died, preached a sermon from the text of 1 Peter 1:21: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” At the conclusion of Maxwell’s sermon, he invited the congregation to commit for a year to asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” before they made any decision. And then, based on the answer to that question, they would do what Jesus would do no matter what the cost.

I had decided to preach the same text and ask the people to make a similar commitment. If they were willing to ask “What would Jesus do?” and do it, they were to write me or respond to the invitation. And now, here was Bill walking down the aisle.

The first time I had met Bill Roberts was the first time in his life that he had ever gone to church. A young woman from his office had invited him to attend our Sunday morning assembly. It was an eventful day for Bill. My sermon that day was on the second coming of Jesus. I preached that Jesus could come back at any minute and then there would be the judgment. Bill believed his first sermon, and it scared him to death.

The next morning Bill called me from work and told me that he wanted to become a Christian. I asked him when he wanted to be baptized. He said immediately because Jesus may come back very soon.

We met at the church building, and I proceeded to explain the message of the gospel from the Bible. I’ll never forget what happened when I opened up the Word. Bill said, “That’s a first.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He responded, “That’s the first time I’ve ever looked at an open Bible.” I couldn’t believe it. He was 41 years old, living in Seattle, and had never read a word from the Bible. I continued telling him the story of Jesus and our response to him. I also explained the cost of following in the steps of Jesus.

After about two hours of studying, Bill said, “Milt, I promise that I’ll read that book every day for the rest of my life. Now can I please be baptized? Jesus may be coming back at any minute!” Bill was baptized, and as far as I know, he’s kept that promise.
Now Bill was walking down the aisle in response to a sermon on, “What Would Jesus Do?” I was ready for him to say, “Great sermon, Milt. It’s about time you preached a hard-hitting message on discipleship.” But Bill surprised me by saying, “Milt, that’s the most confusing sermon I’ve ever heard you preach.”

Confusing? I don’t know how I could have been more blunt. I was asking the church members to figure out what Jesus would do and then do it no matter what the cost.

Then Bill continued, “Yes, Milt, it’s the most confusing sermon I’ve heard here. Are you trying to tell me that I’m sitting here in the middle of a church that hasn’t even decided if it wants to follow in the steps of Jesus? That’s what you told me I was supposed to do when I became a Christian!”

Bill was right. We all need to be reminded that if we see Jesus we must make a response. We can no longer be the same. The call of the sermon is to follow Jesus. It is not simply a call to go to the right church, or to respond to an invitation song. It is ultimately a call to walk in the steps of Jesus at every point in your life.

Peter describes Jesus as our example or pattern. There has been much discussion about pattern authority, but most of the discussion is about the pattern of the church. Peter is talking about a pattern for life, and that pattern is Christ. We are to be like him.

The word for pattern is the one used to describe a model that small children would use in learning how to write the alphabet. At first, when they traced over the master pattern their copy would be similar but obviously flawed. However, the more they traced over the master, the more their copy was like the master. The same applies to our lives. Our first efforts to be like Jesus are drastically flawed. But as we trace our lives over his again and again, we become more like the Master. Certainly our copy is not perfect, but the goal is still to be like him. He is the pattern.

The audacity of our preaching is that we are proclaiming in the midst of hundreds of other religions and self-help philosophies that there is only one way to live your life. There is only one way to live your life and find ultimate wholeness, and that is to respond to Jesus and do what he would do.

How do you know what Jesus would do? Certainly a lot of different subjective answers could be given to this question. But the way to know what Jesus would do is to know him. That is why the emphasis must come before the effect. We must see him or else we will not know what to do. But once we have seen him, the call is there. We must walk in his steps.

I’m concerned that the emphasis of some pulpits has been merely on what to do to become a Christian. Certainly the Bible addresses this, but it also talks about how to live as a Christian. Jesus has been called a peripatetic teacher. That means that he taught while he was walking around. If you wanted to be his disciple, you took a walk with him. Today, he still says, “Follow me.” And the response must be more than a one-time decision or even a weekly one. It is a response to walk with Jesus every day through every life situation. ”What would Jesus do?”

As I stand to preach and face a sign asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” it is difficult to limit that question to the hearers. It is the call of the preacher, but it is also the call to the preacher. What would Jesus say? How would he say it? Am I careful to walk in the steps of Jesus before I ever walk up to the pulpit?

Clarence Macartney writes, “The better the man, the better the preacher. When he kneels by the bed of the dying, or when he mounts the pulpit stairs every self-denial he has made, every Christian forbearance he has shown, every resistance to sin and temptation will come back to him to strengthen him. To strengthen his arm and give conviction to his voice. Likewise, every evasion of duty, every indulgence of self, every compromise with evil, every unworthy thought or deed will be there at the head of the stairs to meet the minister there on Sunday. To take the light from his eyes, the power from his voice, the ring from his glow, and the joy from his heart.”

In response to preachers who don’t take their walk with Christ seriously, Charles Swindoll writes, “I don’t know where you are, but I want you to know there are a whole lot of guys today fiddling around in the ministry and have no business staying in the ministry. They prefer to compromise and satisfy their flesh. And I think for the sake of the glory of God they should quietly and graciously step aside. If that happens to be your mindset and you’re in training for ministry, stop your training until you can get your heart right and make a decision that your life will be unique. Not prudish, not even an attempt to being perfect, but at a holy constant desire to glorify Christ.” “What Would Jesus Do?”

Many churches are growing. But you could probably grow a church without being much like Christ. Instead of merely seeing growth, my prayer is that we will see revival in churches—a growth that is sparked by and rooted in Jesus himself. In The Glorious Revival, Wilbur Smith describes the characteristics of revival. First, revivals occur in times of great moral darkness. Second, they usually begin with one dedicated person. And, third, they are ignited by biblical preaching.

Preaching will be at the forefront of any genuine awakening among God’s people. It always has been. It will be that way in the future. But it won’t be just any preaching. It will be preaching with an emphasis on seeing Jesus, and producing the effect of doing what Jesus would do.Wineskins Magazine

Milton Jones

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