Dear Radio Friends,
The preaching is the chief means used by Christ in His church to work and maintain faith in the lives of His people. The preaching therefore is indispensable. God’s people cannot live spiritually without it—without a heavy dose of it. We say this, of course, because the preaching is indeed the power of God unto salvation. When we hear the preaching, we hear the voice of the good Shepherd Jesus Christ. And it is that voice of Christ that makes the preaching effectual unto the saving of our souls. The preaching, therefore, has as its content Jesus Christ and Him crucified, but it is also Jesus Christ who calls to us in the preaching through the Spirit whom He sends forth to dwell in the church and in our hearts. The Spirit is the author of the Scriptures, the Word of God. When that Word is preached, then the Spirit of our risen Lord teaches us. But the Spirit also works effectually by that Word in the hearts of God’s elect people, so that when they hear it they are strengthened in their faith by it.
But there is more to the preaching than that too, as we have found. When Christ speaks to us by His Spirit and Word, then God is present in our midst. God chooses to commune with us. As our heavenly Father He stands before His children and addresses them in His Word. We come into His house, the place of His abode, and we sit at His feet. He instructs us, admonishes us, encourages us, and comforts us as our Father. When the command goes forth, therefore, “Seek ye my face,” we with hearts of joy respond, “Thy face, Lord, will I seek!” In other words, it is necessary to enter into worship on the Lord’s Day because it is necessary to sit under the preaching. If a person views the preaching in a carnal way, he will view worship in a carnal way too. But when he views the worship of the church and the necessity of preaching in a truly spiritual way, he will say with the psalmist, “O Lord of hosts, how lovely thy tabernacles are! One thing have I desired, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of God all the days of my life!
Such is what we have studied in Scripture up to this point in our consideration of Q and A 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Before leaving this question and answer we wish to consider one last aspect of the preaching. It is a matter of very practical importance in the life of God’s saints. It is a vital matter to the spiritual life of every believer. I broach the subject so that I can say with the apostle Paul in Acts 20:27, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” The subject before us today is the obligation of the church institute to provide for her members the rich fodder or provender of God’s Word. And the obligation of the members of the church to sit beneath the preaching in order to be fed by that Word. We consider today the awesome responsibility God places on the officebearers of His church to preach the Word in season and out of season. But we also consider the sacred duty God places on the members of the church to take full advantage of that preaching whenever it is presented.
The Church Institute’s Chief Calling
The church institute is called by Christ to preach. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel” is the last command Christ left His church before ascending into the heavens. Oftentimes this command of Christ is interpreted as the call to do missions and nothing more. There is more involved in the preaching, however, than merely going out to the nations and spreading the gospel. This command of Christ commissions the church, first of all, to perform her great calling. It is the chief calling of the church to preach. That is her work. Everything else she is called to do surrounds and supports that work of preaching the gospel. The church is not a social club. The church is not a relief agency. The church in her offices is called to preach the gospel. This preaching includes mission work, to be sure. But, in the main, this preaching serves an important function within the sphere of the church itself. That function is set forth in any number of passages of Scripture. For example, after Christ’s resurrection the disciples were fishing and saw Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of His appearances. In speaking to Peter, Jesus commanded him three times: “Feed my sheep!” or “Feed my lambs!” That is the chief calling of the church institute: she is called by her Savior and Head to feed God’s people!
Now, this is an important work of the church. The officebearers of the church are to expend themselves to fulfill the calling of seeing to it that God’s sheep are fed. This figure, of course, draws on the figure of a shepherd and his sheep. The sole task of the shepherd who led the sheep out of the fold each morning and into the hills was to see to it that they were led into the greenest of pastures and beside still waters to drink. While there, the shepherd protected them from those who would seek their harm. But the work to which the shepherd was called to devote himself was to providing food, provender for his sheep. He would not lead his sheep into a dry and dusty wilderness where there was little or no grass. He led them to the hills, where there was plenty of grass. He richly provided for them food to eat and water to drink, searching high and low for the best of pastures where his sheep could graze. And this too is the calling of the church: just as shepherds are devoted to providing an abundance of food for their sheep, so the faithful shepherds of the church are devoted to feeding their sheep. They will not allow their sheep to starve by giving them the poorest of grass or so little grass that there is leanness to the souls of their sheep. Faithful officebearers see to it that the Word is preached. They take seriously their calling: feed Christ’s people! Feed them! Make them fat with God’s Word! Provide that Word in abundance, so that the people of God’s pasture might be healthy and happy. Preach the gospel. Preach! Do not hold back! Preach! And in doing so, feed my sheep! Read Ezekiel 34 sometime and learn of God’s curse on those shepherds of Israel who failed in this calling!
That this is the task of the church is evident in the very offices Christ has ordained in the church. There is the office of the pastor and teacher, first of all. In Ephesians 2:11ff. God teaches us that the office of the pastor is for the perfecting of the saints, i.e., the maturing of the saints. This maturity is gained by the knowledge of the Son of God, so that we might grow up into Christ. The idea expressed here is that when the food of God’s Word is administered to the saints, then they grow in knowledge and maturity. The elders of the church, both in I Peter 5 and Acts 20:28, are also exhorted, in their office, to feed the sheep. This is done by taking oversight of the task of feeding the sheep. The elders rule in the church institute on behalf of Christ. And in that rule they need to see to it that the church is providing an over abundance of food, that is, God’s Word for God’s people. Faithful elders take oversight of the preaching to make sure the pastor is indeed giving sufficient food for the sheep. The office of the deacon in the church is to make sure the ministry of the gospel is supported in order that the pastor can spend time doing the work of feeding the sheep. Providing spiritual food for the church and her members is the calling and chief task of the church in all of her offices. There can be no doubt about it that God’s intention for His sheep is that they be filled, constantly filled, with the Word of God through the preaching of the gospel.
This too is why God provides the Lord’s Day for His church of the New Testament. The Old Testament Sabbath was given the saints for worship. Christ came and fulfilled the Old Testament Sabbath, thus becoming the Lord of the Sabbath. This is why in the New Testament our Sabbath is known in Scripture as the Lord’s Day. It is Christ’s day, and He provides this day for the New Testament church to enter into worship. God provides a full day for His church to enter into the joy and peace of his rest. Mind you, God did not provide His church with half a day, or a couple hours of a day. God has given us the entire day: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” A full day. God says to the church, “Use this day to feed my sheep! Use this day to provide for them an abundance of spiritual food. Fill my people whom I love with my Word. Make them fat with the Word. Do not allow my sheep to go hungry!” So the church, in faithfulness to her calling, has done that throughout the ages.
In the Old Testament the morning and evening sacrifices were offered in the worship of the church. In the New Testament the command is issued, in Hebrews 10:25: “…Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is….” In the early church of the second century it was written in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, under the heading “Every Christian Ought to Frequent the Church Diligently Both Morning and Evening,” that “on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s Day, (we) meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus Christ.” This is the practice still followed in faithful churches today. Why? Because God’s people must hear the preaching of the Word. They must be fed. The officebearers of the church institute utilize the whole of the Lord’s Day in order that they may be blameless before the Chief Shepherd, who has commanded, “Feed my sheep!” It is not an arbitrary matter that the church meet either for a longer period of time or more than once on the Lord’s Day. There are seven days in a week. God has given us six of them to do what we want and need to do. One day God sets aside, one day, and out of that day only a few hours are spent in church for us to be fed. We can sit that long in front of our TVs watching a sporting event, or worse, some movie that fills our heads with sex and violence. Is the church institute, are the elders of the church, requiring too much of us when they fulfill the serious calling they have been given by the chief Shepherd. Hebrews 13:17 speaks of those elders in this way: “they watch over our souls as those who must give an account!” The church institute in her offices must give an account before Christ in the day of days: “Did you feed my sheep?”
Her Members’ Sacred Obligation
This calling of the officebearers toward their members, however, places upon the shoulders of her members an obligation—a sacred and holy obligation. Jeremiah 22:29: “O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord!” Christ reiterates, using a little different language, this command of Jehovah in Matthew 11:15: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” These words are repeated in the epistles of Paul and especially in the Revelation of John. This obligation of God’s saints is also implied in Christ’s command to His church to feed the sheep. Obviously, if pastors and teachers spend hours poring over God’s Word through the course of a week reading, then rightfully dividing or interpreting, and constructing a sermon that will feed the sheep, the sheep are under obligation to hear the Word of God to them. God instructs pastors to do such work exactly because God intends for His sheep to hear His Word. If this were not a holy obligation of believers, it is conceivable that the pastor puts hours of work into a sermon but no one will be present to hear it. If God commands the church institute to feed His sheep, then His command to us who are the sheep is to come and feed on that Word too.
Is this a command of God to sit under the preaching? Is it a command of God to gather in worship as frequently as possible? Is it a command of God to honor the Sabbath by using that day predominantly for worship? Indeed it is! “O earth, earth, earth, hear the Word of Jehovah!” Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy! Hearing God’s Word is indeed a sacred obligation! But just because it is a holy obligation does not mean it is a forced worship! God commands me to love my wife. I do so not begrudgingly. I do so not merely because it is my obligation to do so as a husband, but I do so because I take delight in my wife! God commands us to be faithful attenders in church, to sit under the preaching. We do so not begrudgingly or because we are forced to. We do it because we love to sit under the preaching of the Word. We take delight in God’s house. And certainly if that is not true of us as believers, it is not the fault of the gospel being preached but it is because of a spiritual deficiency in our lives. The preaching is the power of God in our salvation. It is not an outward ceremony of the church that we merely prefer to attend. It is a life-giving power that we see as necessary for our spiritual lives—necessary for our souls.
Let me explain why this is true. Our God is a God of means. God works faith in the hearts of His children. But faith is something that needs to be fed and exercised. If it is not fed and exercised it becomes lean. We begin to think we are strong in faith when, in fact, we are languishing. God gives us means that we must use to feed and exercise our faith. Although there are certain means we are called to use as individual saints in our personal and family lives, such as reading God’s Word and prayer, there is a chief means through which God strengthens and encourages us in our faith. These means God gives to the church institute. They are the preaching and the sacraments. God has not given these means to individuals. He has given them to His church to be used there by the saints in unity with each other. Christ uses these means to strengthen not just individuals and families, but also His church. Failure to use these means in a spiritual manner leaves the believer weak and susceptible to sin and the onslaughts of this sinful world. I can say this, of course, on the basis of what God’s Word teaches us about the preaching of the Word being food for our souls. We cannot live without food. Good healthy food is the sustenance of our bodies!
The same is true of our faith. It needs to be fed. It cannot live and be vibrant if it does not receive a goodly amount of spiritual food. The church institute provides two good healthy meals each week in order to provide for our souls. Now, we can be a spiritual anorexic and deny ourselves those meals, believing we can make it each week without them. But the only ones we are fooling are ourselves. We cannot go forth in God’s service and strong in His might to conquer all evil and stand for the right when we have no food for strength. We as saints cannot minister to the needs of others or be of useful edification to the church when we are starving ourselves spiritually. We cannot stand against the wiles of the devil or be strong against doctrinal error if we are sporadic in our attending to the preaching of God’s Word. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4 that we will be as children, immature in our faith, being tossed about by every wind of doctrine that blows upon us.
Failure’s Inevitable Consequences
In the latter days of the nation of Judah, God in His judgment upon this nation sent a famine of the hearing of God’s Word. God had sent to the nation of Israel His prophets, who preached to the people the Word of God. But the people had rejected knowledge and therefore felt they no longer needed to hear the Word of the Lord. They forsook the preaching. Now, God’s judgment rested upon them (Amos :11), “I will send a famine of the hearing of the Word of God.” Is this what we are seeing in our society today? Where can we find the preaching of the Word? Many in Christianity today refuse to listen to the voice of God in the preaching. There is a famine of the hearing of God’s Word. And the souls of the sheep have become lean! Dear listeners, be committed to the preaching of the gospel! If we are, then God will preserve us in our faith. But more, He will preserve our generations too. God will be gracious to cause us to grow and flourish as Christians. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Dear Radio Friends,