Archives For Motives

Preaching for My Own Ego

February 23, 2015

Gary Burge shares this account in his book Interpreting the Gospel of John:

As a newly-ordained Presbyterian minister I served as interim pastor at a small church in Appalachian Tennessee. This was not difficult since church responsibilities fit well with my college teaching schedule. But since I only had begun to teach, I was enamored with the disciplines of the “academy.” My congregation heard far too much about New Testament theology and interpretation. This church was nestled in a scenic valley where a number of outsiders had summer homes. When they came to church, everyone–including the preacher–noticed. At the start of one service I noticed that the famous Old Testament scholar, James Mays from Union Seminary in Richmond, was in the congregation. Panic set in. The sermon seemed too simple for him. Before I knew it my sermon was explaining how the traditions of the halachah of first-century Judaism affected the transmission of the Synoptics.

I’m not sure if Dr. Mays was impressed (he never came back), but the congregation in its wisdom realized what was going on: I was preaching for my own ego rather than for the needs of the people. My hard-won insights from Jewish literature were being flagged before my audience like so many credentials. Fortunately the people of East Tennessee are gracious, patient and wise–they never held such excesses against me.

Exegesis is the scaffolding of the building, not the building itself. When used correctly, exegesis becomes virtually invisible from inside the cathedral.

I wish I could say I’ve never given in to the temptation to parade my exegesis, but I have.

That’s why I have to keep coming back to this fundamental and corrective question when deciding what to include and exclude from my sermon: Why am I giving my audience this information? Why am I telling them this? Is it for their benefit or mine? Is it intended to help them understand the text better or confirm their belief in a particular doctrine by helping them see how it is rooted in the text (and context) of Scripture? Or am I on a homiletical and mininisterial ego trip?

God, deliver us from preaching that is self-exalting, and give us more of the spirit of John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.

Obviously as a preacher of the gospel I am concerned about the what of preaching–my message. But I must not stop there. I cannot content myself with simply asking “What am I going to say?” I must also examine the why of preaching–my motives. “Why am I going to say what I’m going to say in the way I’m going to say it?”

When is the last time we stopped to ask ourselves questions like . . .

  1. What ambition is driving me forward in my sermon preparation?
  2. What is the consuming passion governing the form and content of my message?
  3. What is my ultimate goal and purpose in delivering this message?
  4. What would bring me the greatest pleasure as a result of preaching this sermon?

Recently I read J. I. Packer’s little book called Weakness Is the Way. In one section Packer examines Paul’s motivations for ministry. In other words, “what drives [Paul] in the risky, hazardous, and often pain-laden service of Jesus Christ that has become his life’s work” (30)?

In one chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians Paul reveals his threefold motivation for ministry. Here they are in Packer’s words.

1. “Paul wants to give constant pleasure to Christ.”

In 2 Corinthians 5:9 he writes, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].”

Packer notes that this is a “demanding occupation”:

It requires sustained love to Jesus, expressed in adoration of him for all that he is in himself and thanksgiving to him for all that he has done. . . . It requires sustained obedience to all his commands, up to the limits of our understanding of them. It requires constant watchfulness against temptations to self-indulgence, and constant battling against sloth, laziness, and indifference to spiritual issues. It requires respectful and caring treatment of all others as persons created to bear the image of God, and self-denial at all points where self-absorption would conflict with and damp down active neighbor-love. It requires daily holiness, from morning to night, a daily quest for opportunities to bear witness to Christ, and daily prayer for the furthering of Christ’s kingdom and the blessing of needy people. (31-32)

2. “Paul wants to be found fully faithful to Christ on judgment day.”

In 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 Paul writes,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.

Packer writes,

Knowing that he and his colleagues, like every other Christian, must one day give account to God for the way they have served the Savior since their conversion, and being thoroughly solemnized in his heart by awe in face of this responsibility, he with them invests himself wholeheartedly in their God-appointed evangelistic ministry. (36)

3. “Paul is controlled, claimed, driven, directed, set going, and kept going by the love of Christ.”

Paul writes in 5:14

For the love of Christ controls us.

This is the “final, climactic motive of Paul and of his teaching.” (37)


Here’s what became clear to me after considering Paul’s motives for ministry: my motives as a preacher must be as Christ-centered as my message. Not only is it necessary to preach with Christ as my central message, it is also critical to preach with Christ as my central motive.  I preach Christ because of Christ–because I want to give him pleasure, because I want to be faithful to him, and because of his great love for me.