The Pastoral Office
The Pastor and the Pulpit, Parts 1 and 2
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Nehemiah 8:4, “And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose…”
What do you see when you stand in the empty church and look down the center aisle at the pulpit you preach from? Is it a sublime place? It is a comfortable place where you enjoy being? It is a place where fuzzy feelings come over you when as you orate various concepts which have been worked through for an hour or two during the week? Is it a place where the people’s needs are met through your psychologized advice to them? What is the pulpit all about? What should the pulpit be about? What does the Bible say about the pulpit?
The pulpit has many aspects to it. We shall cover 5 main topics concerning the pulpit: 1) It is a place of dread, 2) It is a place of worship, 3) It is a place of eternal significance, 4) It is a place for the privileged, 5) It is for God’s glory alone. This article, part 1, will cover “That Dreaded Place; the Pulpit and the minister’s godly fear.”
The text of Nehemiah 8:4 was a most solemn and important time in the life of Israel. Here we find the Scribe, Ezra, climbing upon the wooden pulpit made especially for the reading of the Law in a “restored” Jerusalem. From this wooden pulpit the scribe read to the tribes of Israel who had gathered about. Here Ezra would reiterate the Torah of God to the chosen people of God. Exile had come upon the people where many were killed, or enslaved, and the city of the great king ruined. Here, for the first time, after a long period of years, the Law was going to be publicly read and heard by the elect of God while the very soles of their feet stood upon the ground of the City of Peace. Who was to take up this great task of reading and expounding the Law to the people? Who was learned enough, privileged enough, ready, willing and able enough for the task? It was Ezra, who, as we find in Ezra 7:10, prepared his heart to seek the Law, to prepare for it, to do it, and then to teach Israel. Ezra knew the task he had was very weighty. He did not take it lightly. Preparation for himself was done before he ever walked upon the wooden platform.
Imagine being Ezra, holding the book of the Law in your hands as you watched your fellow country men assemble this wooden pulpit for you to preach to them. They were building it for an intended purpose. Thousands would gather before you. Your purpose would be to bring words of life to a people who had been stripped of life because of their sin. God’s wrath had come to the people of Israel, and now, this reading and expounding of the Law, was going to be a beginning (hopefully) of restoration of spiritual vigor. You were going to stand in the pulpit and give the people the Law—as the voice of God. Your mouth would speak the words of life. Your mouth would teach these words. Your mouth would lift up or cast down. Your mouth would bring people closer to heaven or closer to hell. You would be the vessel whereby the chosen people of God would hear God’s voice. You are the voice piece.
A minister once said, “The pulpit is the most dreadful place on the earth.” We may ask why a called minister of the Gospel would say such a thing. Why? Why is the pulpit so dreadful? Its just a place where a man, twice a week, or so, gives a short address to people from the Bible on a spiritual lesson which may help them make better decisions in life. If that is your view of the pulpit, then an early retirement, before next Sunday, is very much in order for you.
The pulpit is the place where the voice of God is heard. The clay pot of the minister is used by the Holy Spirit in such a way as to communicate the rational Biblical message which has been burning in the bosom of that preacher’s heart night and day all week long. It is the place where God speaks to His people in a unique manner. The Word of God is audibly expressed and expounded by careful and responsible exegesis to God’s chosen people. Here we see the dreadfulness and gravity of the situation. God has chosen weak vessels, feeble frames made of dust, to communicate His message of good news. How careful can the preacher be? How responsible a measure can he take in his work to bring forth the Word of God? Charles Spurgeon, after each sermon was finished, would immediately turn around and kneel upon the chair behind him in earnest pleading that God would forgive him for doing such a feeble and shoddy job in preaching the sermon just moments before. Upon some occasions he spent such a long time there in tears that his deacons would come to him and have to lift him up off his knees so that he would engage some of the people who needed his counsel that day.
There must be a dread about the minister; one which works in such a way as to render him wholly dependant upon the Spirit of God to communicate the Word of God through him by means of his message. There must be a complete reliance on God and an utter destitute of self, or the pulpit is nothing more than an exercise in futility. If a preacher does not see this, then he is no preacher. If a preacher does not live this, he is not called to preach. Butterflies before preaching a sermon is not a warrant for understanding the weightiness of the task at hand. You can get butterflies before you speak at a bar-b-que. There must be a day to day cry from the closet of the preacher to the throne room- of heaven, a besieging of heaven with a holy fervor that this man knows he is unable to bring any good to the people lest God is with him. This preacher knows the dread of the pulpit. He knows God looks upon those who are of of a contrite spirit, those who tremble at God’s Word, and desires that look from God, that long look, which enables him to step up before the chosen people of God and their never dying souls to bring a message of hope to them. He prays that his preparation has been adequate, that his thoughts are clear, that his message is true and biblical and that the unction of the Holy Spirit is with him. How could any preacher stand before the pulpit and not see it as a most dreadful place? Is this man so bold as to say he is able to deliver the message of Christ, the Lord of glory, to a holy ends with confidence, fervor and effectuation easily and without a week of prayer? Christ must enable him to do this, and without that ennablement, he will simply be another speaker or lecturer who advises a group of low-self esteemed men and women to 8 steps to an enriched life. What non-sense is this?
Could you see Ezra standing upon the pulpit in a lax and comfortable manner, maybe leaning on it rubbing his face as he, without any real expression or fervor, read the Word of God to the people? Or is the visage of Nehemiah 8:4ff a picture of great importance and solemn “purpose”? Is it weighty? Is it of great gravity? Is it worthy of such gravity? Does it not call to the minister to take heed of its disposition and meaning, of its purpose and reason for being? How shall men and women be saved unless the preacher is sent? Such a task, the eternal life and death of the human race, is set before every minister who stands in the pulpit. It ought to be a place of utter reverence, and seen by every minister as a place of dread. Here is God’s voice.
When the people of God, they who trust you as a preacher, look upon you in the pulpit, what do they see? In many churches they see a clown and do not even know it. In some churches they see a stiff, in some they see a jester, in some they see a sluggard, in some they see carelessness, and in very few (VERY FEW), they see a preacher who knows the dreadfulness of the place upon which he stands. AMEN.
Nehemiah 8:4, “And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose…”
The minister who preaches is ministering to saints and sinners; those needing encouragement and edification, and those needing conversion. The hearers listen and are ministered to through Christ effectuating his Word as it is preached; and obviously this ministry is effectual if Gospel doctrine is preached over the propagation of false doctrine. It is often observed that those who hear the sermon are present in worship as they listen; and this wholly true. The privilege given to the hearer is to receive the words spoken as “the oracles of God.” But what can we say of the preacher? Is he simply ministering? Is the pulpit only a vehicle for God to minister to the saints in the pew, or is there a dimension of worship for the minister in the pulpit? Is preaching worship?
Any true minister of the Gospel would shout with an resounding “AMEN” to the unavoidable fact that Gospel preachers enter into a dimension of worship from the time they set their eyes upon the pulpit (and arguably sooner), to the time they retire from the pulpit (and arguably later). For the purpose of this article, I am going to persist on the immediate place of the pulpit, and the worship of the preacher while in the act of preaching. We must ask and answer an elementary question before proceeding: Is the “pulpit” important? Does the Bible say anything about a “pulpit?” Charles Spurgeon, in the church he ministered at Park Street had a wooden pulpit, but at the Metropolitan tabernacle he had no pulpit. Does this mean that in one place he, as a minister preaching the Gospel, worshipped, and in another he did not?–certainly not. The absence or appearance of a physical pulpit does not determine whether a preacher is worshipping or not. Peter in Acts 2 did not have a pulpit, through the Gospels we do not find Christ using a pulpit, and most of the prophets did not use one. A physical pulpit merely makes the experience of worship easier for the preacher and less distracting for the hearers. Nehemiah 8:3-5 says, “He [Ezra] read from it [the Law] before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose.” Ezra was easily seen behind the pulpit which probably covered most of his body, and the pulpit was used to hold the scrolls he was reading to the people. There was a focal point for the hearers (Ezra behind the wooden pulpit), a remedy for distractions (the pulpit shielded him—they were not focused on what he was wearing or if he dressed well), and an aid for preaching (it held the scrolls, and possibly any other parchments he had). Physical pulpits are useful, but the act of preaching in that pulpit is what I am more concerned about. It is the act of preaching which I have deemed “the pulpit.”
The pulpit is that sanctuary where a truly called minister of the Gospel exercises his God-given giftedness to the aim of glorifying Christ. In the act of the preaching, this “glorifying of Christ” is the essence of his worship, though at the same time his Gospel preaching ministers to needful people. It is here that the preacher’s feet bring the good news of the Gospel of peace, and while he is doing this he acts as God’s divinely appointed herald, reflecting the image of Christ as the living Word in the message he brings. The preacher ought to be exceedingly gripped with a sense that he is delivering Christ to the people through his preaching. If he is enthralled with a sense of this, then he is immediately conscious of the nearness of God. This “nearness” and mode that the preacher travels through is the exact definition that God himself gives those who worship, “I will be sanctified by those that draw near to me.” (Lev. 10:3) Though this passage describes the unhappy death of Aaron’s sons while offering a strange fire to the Lord, we do find a principle here which cannot be avoided: the ministry of the herald (whether that be the priest of the Old Testament, or the preacher of the New Testament) worships God as he performs the duties God requires of him. (And this would true for any Christian in the outworking of their gifts.) Preaching is worship. It is the vehicle that draws the minister closer to God during that hour. (The same could be said for his prayer time, study time, counseling times, visitation time, and the like.)
Preaching is not just morally edifying speech. It is not simply a pep-rally to excite the listeners to a day or two of penitential service. It is taking the dominion of God and placing it within the deepest reaches of the soul of those he is ministering to. It is screwing truth into men’s minds in such a way as to enthrall the heart with more of Jesus Christ. Preaching is a spiritual infection which ought to impregnate to hearer with the life of God and Christ. If the preacher is intimately aware that he is doing this through the unction and temperance of the Spirit of Truth, he is immediately aware that God is delighted in the work being dealt with. He knows this is nothing he has accomplished, though he spends long prayerful hours in the study exegeting the Word and seeking God for every line of the sermon. Yet, he appreciates the fact that he is simply the vessel that has been prepared to pour forth Christ into the mouth of those waiting for rivers of living water. In that instance and that act of preaching he worships God with all his heart. His heart is poured forth and every fiber of His being screams forth the majesty of Christ and the holiness of God as He addresses the saints. The explanation of the Excellencies he is depositing into the ears of the hearers is the immediate fruit of his personal ownership of those sublime truths. Preaching, for the preacher, is worship.
It is without a doubt that worship begins sooner that in the pulpit. It begins in the study; both in study of the Bible and in prayer. Like pouring a soda into a glass the carbonation fizzles and bubbles so much that it splashes a bit out of the glass. The preacher is intimately aware of this “fizz” while preparation is under way, but once the preacher reaches the pulpit, the fizz is electrified a million times; it explodes! He knows he is not simply his own man; he is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; a holy fizz. The puritan divines would call this the “unction” of the Spirit. This “unction” is the motioning and moving of the Spirit unto the ends for which the Word is directed. Here the preacher is confident of the work he is about. He knows that the Word going forth is not going to return to God void. (Isa. 55:11) It will accomplish all it is set to do. Here the preacher rests in a quiet assurance. He is backed by the promise that God is at work while he is about worship. In this he knows he is a planter. Seeds are sown and fruit will result. Yet, the fruit may not be seen for weeks, months or even years. Still, the preacher rests confident in who God is and what He has promised. God is at work and the preacher glories in that work like a vessel that is used by the hand to be lifted to the thirsty mouth. The preacher is worshipping in all of this. He is experiencing the pleasure of God upon himself as the Word of God rains down upon the people.
Preaching as worship also gives something away. Preachers give away what they have and what they know. Jesus told the apostles in Matthew 10:8, “Freely you have received, freely give.” They were to preach Christ to the peoples, towns and cities; preaching is giving. What were they giving? They were giving forgiveness of sins in the power of the Lord Christ. Not that a preacher “gives up” what he has, but his exaltation of God in preaching by the Spirit gives the hearing soul the illumination it needs to respond to Jesus Christ, the enthroned God on high. When a Christian worships God in spirit and in truth, they glory in Christ’s majesty, work and redemption. Sharing this understanding and joy in Christ is a new dimension of worship before the Father when that person evangelizes. They are able to share Christ, the glory of their own soul, with others. Their worship, as the Psalmist says, “runneth over” onto others. This act is heightened as the preacher engages in the act of preaching. As he is edifying the congregation of saints in preaching, he is running over onto them with doctrines, commands, rebukes, exhortations, and the like with a joy and concern for the souls of his hearers through his own worship. He desires that they take their cup and fill it up from that God which pours forth from his own soul, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The ultimate end of this worship is to glorify God. As with all things, preaching is seen as that which ought to glorify God, yet specifically as God’s special means of revealing himself through the Bible. Romans 10:14 makes this apparent, “How shall they call on him whom they have not believed?” The answer is through hearing the Word of God in the act of preaching; “…And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Sinners are commonly converted by means of the preached Word. In the act of worship, the preacher gains worshippers for the Father. He is used as the instrumental means whereby the Spirit of God will effectuate the instrumental cause of conversion in the soul of the hearer—the preached Word , the Word of truth. Then in verse 15, quoting Isaiah 52:7, we find the preaching already has the mindset of “glad tidings and good things” and is sharing, giving away, those things to the hearers in the joy of his worship with knowing this about God.
1 Corinthians chapter 1 shows the progression of this idea of preaching as worship, if one understands what worship is about. In verses 18-25 we see Paul stating that the when the “power of the cross” is preached, it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. Paul identifies the power of the cross as Christ crucified—that truth he knows intimately through conversion, and experimentally as a preacher. He then moves from preaching Christ to the application of Christ’s redemption to base and lowly “things” (which are those converted sinners), in verses 26-31. Yet in verses 30-31 we see that one of the ends of preaching is the glorification of God by debased converted sinners. Preaching Christ ultimately brings forth the fruit of glorifying Christ by converted people. Then Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:23-24 in verse 31, “He who glories let him glory in the Lord.” This is the expression of worship. The preacher does this while preaching Christ, and converted sinners do this following conversion. One knows of the glories already and is expressing them, and the other receives the glories, is changed by the glories of God, and then now expresses them thereafter.
To summarize the idea, worship in the pulpit is exercised by those who know the saving power of Christ, and express that power through the spoken word, molded by the written revelation of God in the Bible. No preacher has the market on new doctrine. New doctrine is nothing more than heresy. Rather, the preacher, in his act of preaching, communicates the Bible (the knowledge he has gained of God) to the hearers. His worship becomes their worship. Preaching is worship.
(It may be helpful to understand the essence of worship—I suggest reading Jeremiah Burroughs’ work, “Gospel Worship”.)