Learning to Preach from Hebrews
Can we learn something of how to preach from the Epistle to the Hebrews? We have heard that the first three rules for understanding a passage are "context, context, and context." Strange, then, isn't it, that the author of Hebrews introduces almost all of his thirty-plus explicit quotations from the Old Testament (OT) without mentioning who wrote the OT text or where it came from in the Jewish canon. For example, he introduces a portion of Psalm 8 by writing "It has been testified somewhere..." (Heb 2:6). Before quoting from Genesis 2 he says, "For he has somewhere spoken..." (Heb 4:4). Psalm 110 is receives a mere "...as he says also in another place..." (Heb 5:6). Has the author's memory failed? Does he not care about the text's context? Imagine your pastor getting up to preach and telling the congregation, "Good morning. Please open your Bibles to...well...that place somewhere towards the middle where somebody said something." Is this what the Hebrews author is doing? I think not. I think he was keenly aware of the contexts of the passages he quoted. But why not cite the particulars and provide the context of his OT references?
I think the author (who was eminently aware of the context of each OT passage) intentionally veiled who OT writers were because he wanted to make it clear that every OT expression ultimately emanates from the lips of God. These are the words that "[God] says" (Heb 1:8), "[Christ] said" (Heb 1:5), and "the Holy Spirit says" (Heb 3:7). The author is almost indifferent to the human writer or the location of the quote in the OT since, for him, it is more than enough that these texts are the very oracles of God. I also find it fascinating that the Holy Spirit withholds even the identity of the author of Hebrews from modern readers. It seems also to be more than enough for the Holy Spirit that this book is the Word of God.
So what are some lessons for preaching that we can draw either directly or indirectly from Hebrews? First, for all their humanity, which is thorough and undeniable, not to mention astoundingly varied in expression, the Scriptures are finally determined as trustworthy and powerful because they are of divine origin (2 Tim 3:16). Therefore, second, the preacher should preach the wisdom of God in the power of the Spirit, not his own ideas. Third, sermon delivery should be secondary to content (1 Cor 2:3-5). The preacher knows when he is trying to show off. Chances are the congregation does, too. Finally, the minister must preach within his own personality, directing his tone, emotions, and attention on the particular text before him. This will reduce attention towards the preacher and lift the eyes of the congregants to the One who draws every stream of written revelation into Himself.
This Sunday, and every Sunday, may our preachers focus less on how well they are holding their congregants' attention and more on recognizing, embracing and conveying the unwaveringly true words of "him who is speaking" (Heb 12:25).
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