‘How beautiful are the feet . . .’
The Bible’s Own Assessment of the Gospel Preacher
[This is the Graduation address given at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, in May 2010 by Edward Donnelly.]
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans 10:15).
Preachers and preaching are despised today. This is not new. Anthony Trollope, one of the leading writers in Victorian England, wrote in his famous book Barchester Towers:
There is perhaps no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has in these realms the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms and untruisms – empty, useless phrases. He is the bore of the age, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion.
Today, preaching at someone is considered arrogant, objectionable moralizing. Our politicians are quick to assure us that they would not dream of preaching at anyone. How utterly different is the perspective of the Word of God in saying, ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.’
Paul is quoting here from Isaiah 52:7. The words refer to God’s people who are in captivity. They are wretched in exile. Their bondage is bitter. But then, suddenly, they see coming over the mountains messengers of good news. Messengers are coming to tell the exiles that their captivity is ending; their restoration is at hand. How the captives’ hearts lift with joy as the messengers of good news approach! While meditating on these words, I was reminded of the beautiful choral music that Handel wrote for our text: ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.’
In this verse Isaiah is referring to the exile of Israel but also to the preachers of the gospel of Christ. He goes on to say in Isaiah 52:10, ‘The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ So the apostle Paul tells us the preachers of the gospel of peace come to us today to tell us of a deliverance from a more dreadful captivity into a more glorious freedom. This is the perspective of the Bible on gospel preachers.
On what grounds does Scripture offer such an overwhelmingly positive assessment of the gospel preacher? Let us see how the passage offers five reasons why the approach of the gospel preacher is so delightful.
1. Because of the authority they are given
Our text asks: ‘How shall they preach, except they be sent?’ Gospel preachers are appointed and commissioned by Almighty God. One of the marks of a false prophet is that he is not sent. God says to Jeremiah, ‘I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied’ (23:21). Gospel preachers are sent. The word here is also true of apostles; they too are sent. Although we no longer have apostles, every preacher called by God is sent by the Lord. Our Lord charges his sent ones, saying: ‘Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Matt. 9:38). Without a divine sending, there are no true labourers.
The preachers that we ordain today have this authority; they are sent ones. But their authority comes also from the message they bring. Paul asks, ‘How shall they preach?’ The word he uses refers to a herald who does not come with his own message. He is the representative of a king, entrusted with a message from the throne. The herald thus brings the king’s message to his subjects. Likewise, gospel preachers bring us God’s Word. This is emphasized in verse 14 in a phrase that many of our translations do not fully capture. Our version says, ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?’ A better translation would be, ‘How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?’ In true Christian preaching, Christ is the preacher and the speaker, for Jesus says, ‘He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me’ (Luke 10:16).
So the first reason for welcoming the approach of gospel preachers is that they are clothed with heavenly authority. They are Christ’s gifts to his church. They are his spokesmen and his representatives.
2. Because of the blessing they offer
We do not welcome every authoritative approach or message. When I was a boy and did some mischief or prank, my mother would say to me, ‘Wait until your father gets home.’ Eventually that dread moment would arrive. I would hear the door open and my mother’s voice murmur to my father, recounting my wrongdoings. Then I would hear my father’s footsteps coming along the hall towards me. That was an authoritative approach from an authoritative messenger. I did not say, ‘How beautiful are the feet.’ I dreaded the approach of that messenger of wrath and judgment.
What might messengers from a holy God say to sinful men and women? What could their message be? He might have them say to us, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.’ We would have deserved that. Instead, he sends them to offer glad tidings of good things! The verb bring means to announce good news. The Authorized Version translates this word perfectly, saying God’s messengers are tasked not only to bring glad tidings but to bring glad tidings of good things. They are to bring outstandingly good news, unimaginably good news; news beyond our hopes and imagination and our deepest longings.
And what is the message they bring? Salvation! This comes out again and again in the passage. Verses 9-10 say, ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved . . . with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ Verse 13 adds, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ This is a message of salvation from sin, from wrath, from death, from the devil, and from hell! It offers salvation for our souls, salvation for our bodies, salvation for joy, salvation for holiness, and salvation for God! It is a message of an endless, abundant glorious life in heaven. It is good news. It is not good counsel or good advice, but news of something that has been done outside of ourselves, and beyond ourselves, and apart from ourselves. It is something that God has done by which we may be saved. It is so wonderful that we cannot name it with an abstract noun, for the gospel is a person. The Lord Jesus is the good news. It is Christ himself whom the preacher offers. That is the best news ever in this fallen world. Our preachers are being commissioned by God to speak of the greatest possible blessing and happiness available to human beings. ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that . . . bring glad tidings of good things!’
The goal of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary is not primarily to produce academics, or church managers, or social workers, but preachers of the good news of God’s salvation in Christ. We are sending men out aflame with the everlasting message of salvation in Christ. How many people in the next fifty years will be brought to salvation through the ministry of these men? In educating these preachers, we are on the eve of something momentous, something wonderful, something that will cause joy in heaven and will bring glory to all eternity! Should we not rejoice at the approach of these messengers?
Dear friends, God forgive us if we ever forget that we have been given great, glad, and joyful good news. God forgive us for dull, lifeless preaching. God forgive us for sombre, miserable faces. May God help us to keep alive the joyful awareness that we have the best news ever to bring to this tear-stained, fallen world. We are heralds of good news to the world.
3. Because of the need they address
Many people today, who are not only outside the visible church but within her bounds, suggest that the day of the preacher is over and that preaching is passé. We have other, more effective, more technological, up-to-date avenues for communicating the Word of God, they say. The apostle Paul sweeps away such ideas with a series of penetrating questions in verse 14. In a sense, they are rhetorical questions, but in reality they are passionate appeals to awaken us, to pierce our consciences, and to rouse us from apathy. He says, ‘How then shall they call on him . . . whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him . . . whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?’ It is as if Paul opens a great picture window for us, so we may look out of it and see the world. We discover there are millions of people out there who are blind, ignorant, lost, and dead in trespasses and sins. He says of them ‘They have not heard, and so they have not believed, and so they cannot call upon him. They!
As you drove around today, did you think about they? In all the housing developments you drove through in the inner city, in the suburbs, in your neighbourhood, and around your church, were you aware of they who have never heard, they who do not know the gospel, they who cannot be saved until they hear of the Christ who can save them? Paul brings before us the lost people of the world. He calls us to feel their pain and need, and to see God’s preachers as a vital link in the chain of salvation. The proclaimers of the gospel are key to the salvation of the world.
Every Christian has the duty to spread the gospel, but the Bible is clear that God’s chosen way of spreading the knowledge of Christ and of building up his people in holiness and usefulness is through the proclaimers, the sent preachers of his Word. Every solidly growing church I know has preaching at its heart. Our Lord says. ‘The harvest . . . is great, but the labourers are few.’ What are we to do? ‘Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.’ ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?’
There is an ocean of need in the world today. There are vast multitudes who have never heard of Jesus Christ. God’s preachers are God’s agents and God’s servants to bring the message of Christ to those whom God chose to be his even before he created the universe. He has loved them before the foundation of the world. He has named many people in this city and in every city as his. Those who are foreordained to eternal life shall believe through the preaching of the gospel. We welcome the gospel preacher because of the need that they address.
4. Because of what they ask for
Perhaps we might think the message of the gospel preacher is so complicated, esoteric, and involved that only an intellectual can understand it. Or perhaps it is so enormously demanding that only a few could qualify to hear it. That is not true. Paul sums up the requirement for understanding the gospel in verse 13: ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
What the gospel preacher asks of his hearers is simply to call upon the name of the Lord. The quotation is from Joel 2:32, a text prophesying Pentecost, linked with the promise of the Spirit. Joel 2:28 says, ‘And it shall come to pass . . . that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.’ The result of that outpouring, Joel says, is this: ‘it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered: for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call.’ We could take this further and say that this is a perfect description of the entire Christian life. For our life from beginning to end involves calling on the name of the Lord, crying out to him, opening ourselves to him, and calling upon him for help. As the psalmist says in Psalm 116:
The pains of hell took hold on me,
I grief and trouble found;
Upon the name of God the LORD
Then did I call and say,
Deliver Thou my soul, O LORD,
I do Thee humbly pray.
God merciful, and righteous is,
Yea, gracious is our LORD.
God saves the meek, I was brought low
He did me help afford.
Calling upon the name of the Lord in the New Testament is almost a technical description for the Christian. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:2, ‘Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.
Robert Haldane comments: ‘He who calls on the name of the Lord profoundly humbles himself before God, recognizes his power, adores his majesty, believes his promises, confides in his goodness, hopes in his mercy, honours him as his God, and loves him as his Saviour.’ That is what it means to call on the name of the Lord. And that is all we must do. We must say. ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ Or. ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ We have nothing to pay, nothing to do, nothing to bring. Christ has done it all. All we must do is call upon him. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, ‘If the common people cannot hear gladly the message of the preacher, he is not a preacher sent by God.’
Our seminarians have spent four years in intense academic study, and every piece of it is needed. All of their lives they will be earnest students of the Word of God and will seek to equip themselves more intellectually and academically. But at the heart of their ministry and their preaching is a massive, glorious, wonderful simplicity: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved. There is nothing beyond that call on the name of the Lord.
If any of you who read this message are still without Jesus Christ, he summons you to cry to him out of your lostness and your sinfulness and to beseech him to have mercy upon you. No one earnestly calls in vain. Jesus said, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37).
5. Because of the audience they invite
This is a wonderful offer, but does it apply only to a few? Verse 13 says, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Paul goes on to emphasize this in the clearest way. He uses the Greek word all four times in verses 11-13. Sometimes Bible versions translate the word whosoever, sometimes as all; but it is the same word – ‘whosoever believeth on him. He is the Lord over all. He is rich unto all who call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord.’ Everyone who calls upon the Lord, no matter who they are; what their background is; whether they are high or low, rich or poor, black or white; no matter whether they have lived an outwardly moral life or have wallowed in the gutters of life; whoever they are, no matter whether their heads are full of Bible knowledge or know very little; no matter whether their family has been in the church of Christ for generations, or whether they are those who are far off – whosoever believes on him shall be saved.
Do our churches reflect that diversity of the gospel? Or are our churches too homogeneous, too composed of people like ourselves? The Bible says that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. People should look at our churches and see people who have come together from all parts of society and the world, and see that they are one in Christ Jesus.
Our new preachers have a message for everyone they meet. They may go into a church where they do not know any people. They must offer a message for every single one of them, and that perfect message is Christ and his gospel. They may preach that with utter confidence, knowing, ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.’
If we who are experienced ministers of the gospel have in any way lost the wonder and the glory of preaching, the Lord calls us to go down on our knees and say with the apostle, ‘Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.’ We should go into our pulpits next Sunday with the zeal of a boy in the glow of first love to set Jesus Christ before men and women. If you have become tired or discouraged in preaching, reach out once more for the glory of it all. People are waiting to hear the message of the gospel. They are welcoming your beautiful feet which are carrying that message to them!
Those of you who listen to preachers, thank God for them. Your preacher may not be a George Whitefield; he may not be the greatest orator or the most compelling preacher. Like all of us, he has his foibles and his weaknesses, but God has sent him to you to preach the gospel. He is God’s gift to you, and you should honour him, respect him, and pray for him. Close your eyes to his faults and thank God for his virtues. Pray that God will overcome his weaknesses. When he stands in the pulpit on the Lord’s Day, say in your heart, ‘How delightful is his approach!’
Look at your newly graduated preachers with the eyes of faith and imagine where God will send them. What is God going to do through these men, and what will God achieve for himself and his glory through these men? Pray for these men, and pray for the seminary and those who teach there. Pray that God will send us many more men to become preachers of the Word.
John Calvin says of our text: ‘We learn from this how much the preaching of the gospel is to be desired by all good men, since it is thus commanded by the mouth of God. God bestows the highest praise on the incomparable value of this treasure.’
May God bless all of you in your ministry for Christ.
Reproduced by permission from PRTS Update May 14, 2010.
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