The Uselessness of Church Speakers - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonPastoral Theology and Expository Preaching Articles
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Jeremiah 3:14-17 “Return, O backsliding children,” says the LORD; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. 15 “And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16 “Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the LORD, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore. 17 “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts.”
Judah had been in long abiding backsliding and apostasy. A number of problems with various kinds of sin pressed God to send the people into exile. Judgment was on its way. But it was preceded with God’s long-suffering in warning them of their wickedness, again. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, was purposely chosen to stand in the midst of a people who had turned their hearts away from God and toward idolatry of various kinds. God would, in due time, send His elected signet ring, Nebuchadnezzar, to judge the people because of their lack of attention to the Word of God and the words which Jeremiah brought on behalf of the Lord.
The Lord had been calling Israel to return, for there was still hope for her repentance. In verses 12-13 (not quoted above) Jeremiah proclaims to the northern kingdom of Israel a call to repent and a promise of restoration. Restoration among the prophets is an immense theme that continues to be overlooked again and again, especially in terms of its ultimate fulfillment in Acts 2. However, in this immediate context, God gives a summary statement that in view of what had been previously proclaimed among the tribe of Judah in view of their sin and wickedness, there would be only one conclusion to speak of: Apostate Israel is more righteous than treacherous Judah. This is reminiscent of Ezekiel 23:11 where God says, “Now although her sister Oholibah saw this, she became more corrupt in her lust than she, and in her harlotry.” Judah had become more corrupt than Israel. The northern kingdom did not have the example of judgment before her as Judah did, and so God subsequently determines that in light of their apostasy, Israel’s ten tribes are less guilty than Judah.
In verses 12-13 the Lord is calling Israel to return, for there is still hope for her. This call is directed toward the north, toward Assyria, where the Ten Tribes had been for about a century. Here the remnant stayed when the northern kingdom had been carried away. (Consequently, the remnant that was left intermarried with the Assyrians to form the Samaritans.) God promises not to leave His anger residing upon Israel, in hopes that such a message would spur on Judah to act righteously. God’s message of promise is all of grace. But would this provoke Judah to jealousy? If God was going to be forgiving towards Judah, her repentance must be seen and her sins must be acknowledge in humility (v.13). They must confess their idolatry, or God would turn them over to foreign enemies.
In verse 1a the Lord commands Israel to return. The marriage bond that God has for His people cannot be dissolved, and as a result, there is a restatement of the marriage bond indicating acceptance with God. Yet, how far will this go for Judah as well? Will Israel repent and so demonstrate Judah’s need for repentance? Or will the people remain in idolatry?
As with all the various “cycles” that emerge in the Hebrew text seen in the prophets, there is usually one of “future blessing.” In verse 14b the reunion and restoration of both kingdoms are set forth. The Lord promises that no matter how many people repent, He will bring them back to Zion – but only those that do actually repent. Jeremiah says that even though there is scarceness among the number that do turn and repent (the remnant) that will not hinder the Lord’s purpose for them.
Then, verse 15 demonstrates in their future blessing, the need for godly rulers – and this the Lord promises them. These “feeders” (shepherds) (cf. 2:8; 23:4) will “feed” with knowledge, i.e., in the fear of the Lord. In contrast to the corrupt leaders of Jeremiah’s day, these rulers, like David, will conform to the mind and will of God. This does not mean that the “feeders” or shepherds themselves will be perfect. Rather, in this context everything is set as literal and nonsymbolic (compare this with the promise of the restoration in chapter 30-31). As God restores the people, they will increase to the highest degree (cf. 23:3; Ezekiel 36:11; Hosea 1:10). And it is certainly true that the phrase, “in those days” in verses 16 and 18 clearly refers to messianic times and the coming of Jesus Christ (cf. 30:24; 21:27, 29, 31, 33, 38).
There is a very interesting notation, a blatant demonstration of the radical fulfillment of the messianic age, in verse 16. In the age of restoration no one will mention the ark of the covenant of the Lord. For an Old Testament prophet to make a statement of this kind was of unparalleled boldness. The impression that is being pressed is that the worship of God will need no visible aids, for God will dwell among his people. Consequently, all nations will be drawn to such a people of worship. The ark will not be remembered. Previously, it was the epicenter of the religious life of God’s people and the place where the high priest offered the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. But in verse 16b, God shows that the old economy is to be dissolved upon the messianic restoration of the people (a future promise). The old covenant, of which the ark was a central feature, was to give way to another fulfilled period in the time of the church. The ark will not be the center of religious worship because it will no longer be necessary as a symbol of God’s presence – that will be replaced by the Spirit of God, the river of living water sent by the Messiah. The times of the ceremonial law will pass away. The actual glory of God in the midst of his people will be sufficient, and therefore the typical glory (the shadows) will not be missed.
Central to the theme and point of the passage is the need for godly “feeders” in the midst of the restoration. These “feeders” (the literal usage of the term “shepherd”) would come in, following the desires of God’s heart, to feed the people with knowledge and understanding. The Hebrew here is dayaw meaning knowledge pertaining of God, and sakal meaning to look at or upon, have insight, to give attention to, or consider, ponder, and be prudent. It holds the connotation of comprehension. In other words, not only will the people of God have knowledge of God, but they will have in sight into what that knowledge means. A very good example of this in the restoration was Ezra and Nehemiah’s work in preaching and teaching after the exiles returned from deportation. Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” In this verse, sakal is used of “and gave the sense.” The book of the law was read, its sense was explained, and this caused the people to understand what was read. It was not that the word was read, and they told the people what was read – rather, they caused them to understand its sense. These were shepherds after God’s heart. Shepherds, sent on behalf of God to His people, not only making the actual text of the Bible known to the people of God, but they helped the people of God understand the sense behind the Word.
Shepherds, in contrast to false teachers, explain God’s mind to the people. God is always quite angry at what false shepherds did to the people of God. Oftentimes, they would abuse their position at the expense of the people. Ezekiel 34:2, “Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” Jeremiah echoes this when God says through him in 50:6, “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place.” The shepherds that God sends feed His flock. As it is said of God, so it is said of His Shepherds, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (Isaiah 40:11).” The shepherd is to feed. Again, literally, if one is to follow the Hebrew, the verse would say, “He shall feed His flock like a feeder.” This is God’s promise in Jeremiah 3:15. He will send His people feeders who will feed them with knowledge of Himself, and understanding.
In the age of the contemporary church, there is new breed of speakers that have arrived on the scene. In all actually they are not “so new” but more trendy today than ever. If a spectrum was to be made, false teachers are far to the left, shepherds are far to the right on the other extreme and somewhere about midway, but still leaning left, is what would be called the “church speaker.” Now church speakers are not heretics, nor are they necessarily bad people. They may be very charismatic, very nice, very politically oriented in the church, and quite adept to making new people feel right at home. They prepare sermons each week, maybe even give a lesson or two midweek, and possibly other sundry things to edify, in their thinking, the people of God. Their sermons are often shallow, superficial though they depend wholly upon a given text. The text itself may be read, but the information about the text is simply an expanded version of what the text already said. In this way church speakers basically become figureheads. Churches need leaders. Churches need to at least look like the Old Testament or New Testament model with officers. Now whether these officers actually fulfill the role of their office is another matter.
Church speakers do not fill the criteria of being a shepherd after God’s own heart. The reasoning here is very simple. They are quite useless. It is not enough for Church Speakers to church speak. What is it to church speak? It means they simply say what the text already says without doing two other important things: 1) explaining the sense within the text, and then 2) applying the text practically. Those two aspects to busy church politicians is often too difficult and too time consuming for them to pay any mind. Instead, it is much easier to “church speak” about a text in a manner in which the text used is simply repeated in some sort of recapitulation. They will read a text, then explain the text in a simple manner, then use other Scriptures that teach something of the same text, then end with a single thought that seems to be appropriate to the text itself. They really never arrive at a point where they keep their finger on the text and explain its sense. Church speakers simply jump from text to text spring boarding into a topical sort of “nothing” without ever landing on a teaching or exposition that truly does justice to the text itself.
To really think about the affects of Church Speaking would be to use an illustration of a “church-spoke sermon.” Recalling these bad sermons is not difficult. Forgetting them is much harder. This writer could go back years and years and recall a good many. One could search the internet for thousands upon thousands of them. Church speakers every week preach these dreadful sermons that are useless to the people of God, and continually pacify unsuspecting sheep. Here is an example of one of those useless trivialities. The title of the sermon was “I am Thankful for Heaven.” It does not matter who “preached” it. It is a classic case of church speaking. This church speaker had recently lost his wife around the time of thanksgiving. So he wanted to be thankful, and he decided the sermon would be about being thankful for heaven. His text was John 14:1-3. The text reads, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” This certainly has something to do with heaven, but is a little short on thankfulness. Since, the church speaker, though, wanted to express something about both, well, this text would have to do. He took about 5 minutes (never actually reading the text which is a grave mistake but typical) and explained why his year was so hard in losing his wife. This is tragic. But it is also really not the place for this to take place. In any case, it was a good lead-in to his “sermon.” So then he comes back to his initial question, “What am I thankful for this thanksgiving?” His answer was that there is a place called Heaven. Now, mind you, the text’s purpose really is not about heaven in particular, but the Messianic mission. But instead, this church speaker, who obviously had not done his homework, decided to use it as a springboard for a sermon on heaven, and made the people think that this was the point of the text. In any case, church speakers often have three points of “explanation” and then they close. This was no different: 1) Heaven is a Place, 2) Heaven is a Prepared Place, 3) Heaven is a Prepared Place for Prepared People. Very succinct, and quite neatly packaged. Again, be reminded, this has nothing to do with the text at hand, but it sure sounds biblical. His first point is covered by quoting three other Christian books with quotes about heaven. The substance of his first point was that heaven is a real place where Jesus is going and that Christians will one day go. But see, there, it took three seconds to say that. Not fifteen minutes of emotionalism or pithy quotes. Next, this church speaker said that heaven is place prepared for Christians. The carpenter Jesus goes to heaven to make a dwelling for his people. Quaint! The carpenter is off to work! So, this church speaker says, “The meaning of this passage is clear: Christ has gone before us to prepare an abiding place for us in heaven.” That means he is not going to have to explain it. Now, Samuel Rutherford or John Owen would preach thirty-five sermons on this one text. But this church speaker, as others, says it relatively clear. It does not need a great amount of explanation. And not surprisingly, he does not explain it! Instead, he tells a couple of stories that talk about how beautiful heaven will be. It will be more beautiful than it is here, and it will not be a boring place. Where did the text say this? In any case the drivel continues. And he quotes more Christian writers to “under gird” his sermon. Notation: keep this in mind – it is simple to look up picturesque quotes (there are thousands of books and computer programs to do this), and church speakers do it over and over because they supply their sermons with quotes instead of substance. The text takes work to work out. Quotes are easy. They make the sermon sound “Christian” while at the same time rob the people of the substance, the sense, of the passage. Then, finally, the church speaker will always turn the third point into some evangelistic concoction that prepares the people to hear “some sort of offer of the Gospel.” This is typical of church speakers. They always take a detour at the end. They do not apply the sermon in a manner consistent with the either the text or the doctrine from the text, and instead turn their ending into an alter call of sorts, even if they do not call people to the front. In this sermon, the church speaker said that since heaven is a prepared place, then the people who go there are to be prepared. Catchy eh? But in all this, though he did not say anything blatantly false (like heaven is not real, etc.) he really did nothing to help the people understand the text itself. There was no application, no doctrinal content that was not “obvious” or “clear” as he said. So instead of explaining it, he simply reiterated a few ideas that were commonly accepted and went on his way. How is this any different than when Oprah Winfrey gives an encouraging speech to her studio audience?
Church speakers are useless. Let me say it again so there is no mistake. Church speakers are utterly useless. They are good for nothing. To them the solemn warning goes out – Jeremiah 23:1 “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” says the LORD.” God is not happy when His people are destroyed from a lack of knowledge (Hosea 6:4). He detests church speakers. As a matter of fact, in some ways, they are a greater danger than some blatant heretics. Heresies may abound, and they may have their followers, but imagine, especially today, how many people are satisfied with church speakers? They come in on Sunday morning, sit in the pew, and listen to superficial drivel, thinking they are fulfilling their duty to go to church. Even more deceived are the church speakers who think they are edifying the people of God! The sermons of these church speakers demonstrate that God has abandoned them. Continuing with the theme of the book of Jeremiah, “For the shepherds have become dull-hearted, And have not sought the LORD; Therefore they shall not prosper, And all their flocks shall be scattered (Jeremiah 10:21).” God says such will not prosper and their flocks will ultimately be scattered. Now that may happen in a year, two years, ten years, etc. Its all done in God’s timing. And it makes little difference to God whether they have a fancy building and lots of tithing parishioners. That does not mean they are prospering. A tell-all point in this is when the writer to the Hebrews said, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (Hebrews 5:12)” Find a church that is immature, unknowledgeable in the things of God, that has been around for a very long time and you will find it infested with ignorant Christians lead by some church speaker who thinks he is serving Christ.
What can Christians do about church speakers? That is actually a tough question. Why? Well, church speakers are often accepted because of who they are. When the congregation is “learning so much” and they love their “pastor”, then kicking against the goads is almost a fruitless lot when the majority enjoys the three poems and a prayer they receive from church speakers. They are not going to be inclined to hear a new preacher come in and give a fire and brimstone sin-searching sermon. Attendance will be relatively low on that day.
God says that He will send shepherds (feeders) after His own heart. Calvin says of this passage in his treatise, “The true Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,” “We read, that in ancient times, when, partly by the ignorance and sluggishness, partly by the perfidy and wickedness of the priests, the worship of God had been vitiated, the administration of sacred rites lay unattended to, pure doctrine was perverted, and the Church had well-nigh fallen, prophets were raised up by the extraordinary inspiration of God to restore her ruined affairs. And, indeed, it was necessary that it should be so. What is said in Ezekiel and Jeremiah belongs to us not less than to the ancient people, that God, to punish the iniquity of evil shepherds, will drive them away, and give good and faithful shepherds to feed according to his will.” This is no less true today, though instead of renewing a grand prophet, there is a need for faithful preachers – shepherds – who are truly sent by God to feed His sheep. Calvin says of those false shepherds in Jeremiah’s day, “He then says, that the cause of the people’s ruin was, because instruction had ceased among them, and pastors had become mute dogs or robbers.” These church speakers are no more than dumb dogs, ignorant beasts, who are unfit to teach being so ill-taught themselves.
What is the easiest and most simple manner in which to point out such church speakers? If a Christian knows God’s heart, it will be easy to spot one who does not know or care about the heart of God in any real or deep sense. This manifests itself in one crucial, but very distinctive way – the fear of men. Shepherds, who love God and are sent by God to feed His sheep – do not fear men. They are more afraid in reverence and awe of God to do His will than to appease men. Just take a brief survey of the book of Jeremiah! On the other hand, when church speakers preach, lead, instruct, facilitate, etc, the people in their church, their primary motivation is not out of the fear of God, but the fear of men. The fear of men leads to pleasing men and the vanities of the flesh. Sermons, then, are not so much concerned with pleasing God and the content of the text (to preach the doctrine and apply it practically), but with the things of men (how can the sermon sound biblical but be seeker sensitive or superficial). Church speakers will use Christianese, or “biblically based sermons”, because to abandon the Bible altogether would be too much for what little of their conscience is left. Sermons, then, are abandoned for gentle exhortations, with no conviction of sin, or sin-searching. That is why church speakers rest on church speaking instead of biblical preaching with sin-destroying application – they are afraid of what men will think, or what they will do (leave the church?). They are popularity hunters. True preachers must be fully persuaded in their own minds never, ever, to formulate their beliefs or frame their behavior out of the fear of men. This obviously applies directly to the preaching of the Word. Find a church speaker who leaves off his application because he thinks “the Holy Spirit will apply it for him” and this writer will show you a hard-core church speaker. The fear of men will bring a snare that will entangle the work of God in vain fleshly detours. They will tell their congregations that their ministry should not be marked with contentions and difficulties of such a sort, and instead want to preach to exhort, and yet not necessarily to please men. But this is a facade. Instead, they should be rebuked for not “speak[ing] boldly, as they ought to speak,” without the fear of men. They should not seek to please men for then they would not be the servants of Christ. The apostles, being filled with the Spirit were not intimidated with the threats and menaces of men, the persecutions of wicked men, and the opposition of false teachers. Instead, they were bold in their God to speak the gospel of God with “much contention” (Eph. 6:19, 20; 1 Thess. 2:2, 4). And so Church speakers are exposed for what they really are the moment they desire to dodge such a ministry of contention.
Church speakers set the fear of men before themselves even before they set out to structure their “sermon” or pray about the next week’s speaking engagement. That is their motivation, even if it is hidden from their own mind. The wise preacher, bidden of God to preach the word and explain its sense to the people, will place God and eternity before himself. He will structure his sermon on his knees with fervent prayer. He will take ample and considerable time to study every word, every phrase, and every verse in context. He will master the text, and the text will master him. He will listen to what God says in the text, rather than what he can use the text for in spring boarding into “Christianese” orations. Powerful preaching will never emerge unless church speakers are liberated from the fear of men. Church speakers will never be free to be an instrument of godly blessing to their people unless they are free from the effects of the smiles and frowns of their congregation. People are not stupid. People know when church speakers can be bought by their smiles and beaten by their frowns. Certainly, for those who hold in high regard the fear of men, it will not take their congregations long to discern whether or not they are men who are not affected either by their smiles or by their frowns. The Proverb, for church speakers, is very true, , “The fear of man brings a snare, But whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe. (Proverbs 29:25)” Those who truly trust in the Lord are those whom the Lord sends. They are true under-shepherds of Christ Jesus who sends into the harvest men who fear him, and who desire to feed His sheep with knowledge and understanding with a ministry that is particular to the task of feeding.
The manner in which the work of the ministry is to be performed should be done diligently and constantly, with great sedulity and perseverance, “in season and out season,” (2 Tim. 4:2). It is to be done with great plainness and perspicuity (2 Cor. 3:12, 4:2), “delivering out truth in a clear and open manner”. The minister must have perfect honesty, absolute integrity, entire security, fearlessness in respect to men, and conscientiousness before God. Preaching is be done with plain language and easy to be understood by those of the weakest capacity; yet not base and sordid, but above contempt. It is to be done fully and completely, which is done when every truth is preached, and nothing is concealed, no duty is omitted and when nothing that is profitable is kept back. The whole counsel of God is declared, and when it is preached fully, as it was by the apostle Paul, full proof of the ministry is made (Rom. 15:19; 2 Tim. 4:5; Col. 4:17). It is to be done faithfully (Jer. 23:28) since ministers are stewards of the mysteries of God, and of His powerful grace. It is to be done sincerely, delivering out “the sincere milk of the word” – not corrupting it or using any artful methods to color things, and put a false luster upon them. Instead, preachers are exposing truth to public view in its simplicity, without any sinister ends and selfish views (such as the fear of men). It should be done fervently (Acts 18:25) as Apollos had done, as well as spoken of boldly; “speak boldly, as they ought to speak,” without the fear of men, not seeking to please them. No false show of humility, nor fear of men, may keep a godly preacher from addressing his audience with authority, provided he brings the Word of Christ.
Though the text of Jeremiah 3:15 should convict and condemn all church speaking, an object lesson may be of help on this topic. It concerns the apostle Peter. Peter denied Jesus because of a fear of men, and this was in the context of giving a solemn testimony to the reality of the Messiah and the association Peter had with the Messiah. It could not be more complimentary to mention this narrative amidst Jeremiah 3:15. These texts and the lesson are complimented greatly by the object lesson. It is true that Peter said he would never deny Christ. He would never do such a thing. Mark 14:31, “But he spoke more vehemently, “If I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” As a matter of fact, all the disciples said this, “And they all said likewise.” But when the moment came to bear testimony to Christ, fear of men gave way. He could have preached a great sermon on the spot. Maybe many would have been converted. Peter, is, of course, the loud obnoxious foot in the mouth preacher – the leader of the apostles to some extent. But instead, he feared men. Mark 14:72 explains the incident after his denial very poignantly, “A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.” Unlike Peter who repented from his denial and fear of men, church speakers do not weep. They simply continue to deny Christ in deserting true preaching and the fullness of expounding the word of God faithfully and without guile.
When the word is read, its doctrine expounded or sense explained, and its sin-destroying application is unleashed, one is sitting under a godly minister. If such things are not at the forefront of a preaching ministry, and it is content to be so, such a man will forever remain, a useless church speaker. These men grieve the Holy Spirit by their sinful actions for fearing men, and demonstrate the deplorable state of the church today, and the complacency of the congregation. They should get out of the pulpit and into the pew, for such church speakers are utterly useless.
“And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Jeremiah 3:15
See the second article here, the Uselessness of Church Entertainers.
——————————————————————————– John Calvin, Selected Works, vol 3, Ages Ultimate Library [CD ROM], 274.  John Calvin, Commentary on Jeremiah, Jeremiah 3:15.