MANILA, PHILIPPINES—Last week, I wrote about the importance ofpreaching the cross. We must continually emphasize the cross because it is something that most people (religious or secular) don’t want to hear—and it’s something that most preachers (evangelical or otherwise) don’t really want to preach.
So how do we preach the cross? Where should we begin?
My advice is to go deep intoonecrucial idea, text, or metaphor. So often when we preach, we try to say everything, and we end up with a sermon that is wide yet shallow. Piling on Bible verses and metaphors results in weak and ineffective preaching. Instead of going wide (and shallow), I’d recommend going deep (and narrow) when you preach the cross.
I’d recommend choosing one (maybe two) of the following approaches for a sermon:
1. Preach the cross from the Gospels. I might take this one step further and recommend preaching the story of the crucifixion from just one of the gospel writers in any given sermon. Each writer has a particular theological emphasis in their account of Jesus’ life and death. It is worth unpacking each retelling of the crucifixion through the eyes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
2. Preach the cross from the Writings of Paul.Preaching the cross from Paul’s letters gives us the opportunity to go deeper into some of the ideas about the cross only implicitly referenced by the gospel writers. Unlike the gospel writers, who convey their theologies of the cross primarily through narrative, Paul gives us a more explicit discussion of the meaning and implications of it. Again, different letters (whether Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Galatians) offer different emphases that are worth treating on their own.
3. Preach the cross from the Old Testament. The best way to do this is to follow the lead of Paul or the gospel writers who make explicit references to the Old Testament as they explain the significance of Jesus’ death. Sometimes it’s enough just to alert your listeners to the Old Testament reference they’re making, but sometimes it’s worth preaching an entire sermon from an Old Testament text (like Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53) that points to the cross and helps us understand its significance in a new way.
4. Preach the cross from a recurring biblical theme or motif. Though I typically like to ground my sermons in a particular text, sometimes it is valuable to ground the sermon in a particular theme which we can trace and unpack through several texts and stories. The key here is to focus narrowly on one theme—like blood sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:22), ransom (see Matthew 20:28), or substitution (Leviticus 16). Obviously, these themes are all related, but they are worth unpacking on their own. Each idea has profound implications for our understanding of the cross.
As we make the cross central to our preaching, we will be reminded that the cross is central to the Scriptures (from start to finish). And as we study and preach the Word with the cross in mind, we will remind our listeners (and ourselves) that the cross is central to the call to discipleship.