My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word. Notice that this thesis highlights three components, which are actually three sequential phases of the ministry of the word.
The first phase is the stewarding phase. It focuses on faithfully receiving God’s word. The steward is entrusted with the word of God. The second phase is the heralding of God’s word. God intends for the stewarded word to be heralded. The preacher gives a human voice to the divine word so that others will hear from God. The third phase is encountering God through his word. In this step, the responsibility to steward the word passes from the preacher to the people. This phase is a time of great gravity because every word from God demands a response. These three elements are three sequential phrases in the dynamic process of preaching God’s word: stewarding, heralding, and encountering.
Explanation of the Thesis: Three Suitcases to Unpack
The three parts of the thesis statement are like three suitcases so stuffed with meaning that they are bursting at the seams and demanding to be unpacked one at a time. Let’s begin unpacking.
Suitcase 1: Stewarding God's Word
The first phase focuses on the content of preaching, which is the stewarded word of God. On this score, it is hard to improve upon Paul’s pithy summary in 1 Corinthians 4:1–2. He says that a steward is one who has been entrusted with something (i.e., the what) and so he must be found faithful (i.e., the how) with respect to what has been entrusted. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (4:1–2).
Mark Dever offers a succinct definition of a steward: “A steward is someone who is not an owner but one who is entrusted with someone else’s property.”1 In other words, a steward is not a master, but a servant; a servant entrusted with something that belongs to his master. John Stott says it well: “Indeed, if the [stewardship] metaphor teaches anything, it teaches that the preacher does not supply his own message; he is supplied with it.”2 God is the Master, the word is his property, and the preacher is the appointed servant entrusted with it.
This stewardship of the word may take different forms at different times (patriarchs, prophets, scribes, just to name a few), but the same basic calling ties these stewards together throughout the pages of Scripture.
Suitcase 2: Heralding God's Word
The second phase of preaching is heralding God’s word. The emphasis on heralding is on tone of the delivery. Preaching is not discussing or explaining something with the tone and tenor of a fireside chat. The “herald” is the town crier that speaks with the forceful tone of “hear ye, hear ye.” In other words, the herald made his proclamation with a rousing “attention-getting noise” that could not be ignored.3
Gordon Hugenberger reinforces the gravity of the herald’s task by stressing the political or military associations of the word. He points to the work of Suidas, the tenth-century AD Greek lexicographer, who said, “A herald is in time of war what an ambassador is in peace.”4 The herald would go into “enemy territory ahead of an advancing army to warn the enemy of certain destruction unless they accepted the proffered terms for peace.”5 Therefore, the king would invest the herald with the power “either [to] accept surrender on behalf of his king or to declare war if those terms were rejected.”6 The herald’s authority is completely derived and is legitimate only to the degree that he faithfully represents the one that sent him.
Notice how stewarding and heralding go together. Peter spoke of using our gifts to serve one another “as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). He then highlights two basic gifts of grace to steward: speaking gifts and serving gifts. The herald is a faithful steward of a speaking gift of grace when he speaks “as one who speaks oracles of God” (4:11). Paul made the same connection between preaching and stewardship in 1 Corinthians 9:16–17: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.”
The connection between stewarding and heralding is simple. God entrusts the word and then God calls the preacher to herald it. The calling and gifting to handle and herald the word are themselves a stewardship from God. God’s calling and gifting are prerequisites for this stewardship, as we will see in the chapters that follow.
Furthermore, the steward needs to stay faithful with what has been entrusted, and the herald needs to stay true to what he has been sent to say. He has no authority to modify the message or insert his own opinions as if they represent the revealed will of the sender. The herald proclaims a message as an ambassador representing the one who sent him.7
These two terms, stewarding and heralding, also help the reader of Scripture to understand the relationship between teaching and preaching. Preaching has an expository dimension because God entrusts the preacher with a specific message. The fact that heralding God’s word requires exposition explains why preaching and teaching in Scripture often appear together (e.g., Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 11:1; Luke 20:1; Acts 5:42; 15:34; 1 Tim. 5:17). I believe preaching refers to how something is stated (a heraldic way), while teaching focuses on the content of what is said (unpacking something).
Another reason why people should not sharply distinguish preaching and teaching is that the two are often used interchangeably in Scripture. For example, the response to Jesus’s most famous sermon (the Sermon on the Mount) defines the sermon as “teaching” (Matt. 7:28). In the same way, a verse in Romans sheds light on the interchangeable nature of the terms. Paul lays down a general statement for the Jews: “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourselves?” (Rom. 2:21). When he gives an example of this principle, he uses the term “preach.” “While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” (2:21).
Therefore, the combination of the terms stewarding and heralding honors the intricate connection in Scripture between preaching and teaching. One could say again by way of summary that the word herald focuses on the preaching aspect or the heraldic tone of the delivery, while the word teaching places more stress on the entrusted content that the herald as teacher must unpack.
Suitcase 3: In Such a Way that People Encounter God
The third phase of preaching brings the burden of God’s word to bear upon the hearers. The sequential nature of the first two phases of preaching leads to a moment of truth for the hearers. The preacher in Scripture has spoken God’s word. The people now must steward God’s word. Properly stewarding the word leads to life and blessing. Improper stewardship of the word leads to death and curse.
We cannot allow our definition of encounter to emphasize only positive transformation. I do not use encounter as a synonym for what Henry Blackaby has called “experiencing God,” which he describes as a positive experience. The encounter can be negative or positive, depending on how people respond to God’s word. Consider, for example, Paul’s description of the effects of his ministry of the word upon his hearers: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15–16).
Sometimes an encounter with God through the preaching of the word brings the sweet smell of life, while for others it brings the stench of death. The Scriptures sing with examples of the power of the word to change lives. The word also contains stinging examples of powerful judgments.
1. Mark E. Dever, “A Real Minister: 1 Corinthians 4,” in Mark Dever et al., Preaching the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 18.
2. John Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait: Some New Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 23. Stott has an excellent study of the stewardship word group.
3. Gordon Hugenberger, “Preach” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffey W. Bromiley, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 942.
4. Quoted in ibid.
7. D. A. Carson says something similar in his discussion of what preaching is. He says that preaching has a “heraldic” quality because “in the oft-repeated ‘Thus says the Lord’ of the Old Testament, or in the proclamation so common to the New Testament, there is an unavoidable heraldic element—an announcement, a sovereign disclosure, a nonnegotiable declaration. As ambassadors, we are tasked with making known the stance and intentions of our Sovereign; we do not have the authority to tamper with his position.” D. A. Carson, “Challenges for the Twenty-first Century Pulpit,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 177.