Proclamation: The Biblical Context

Gordon Clinard  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 8 - Spring 1966

Contemporary Christian proclamation must be understood in light of its biblical context. Thus an examination of the act and content of biblical witness will be relevant for a discussion of Christian proclamation. 

The Old Testament—Preparation for Proclamation 

The Old Testament can best be said to contain preparation for Christian proclamation. Let us examine what this claim involves. 

A primary emphasis on exhortation 

Old Testament spokesmen for God usually addressed those in covenant relation with Jehovah. Several words suggesting proclamation occur to describe their message but they usually describe divine or prophetic announcement of an epochal event to Israel. The predominant Old Testament term translated “to proclaim” literally means “to call.” With one exception every use of the term refers either to proclamation within the covenant relationship or to some non-religious declaration. The same covenant usage occurs in most of the other Old Testament words dealing with proclamation. Ecclesiastes refers to “the preacher” but hints at nothing fully approximating the Christian witness to the world. Only one usage of the verb “to preach” indicates anything other than an exhortation within the redeemed community. 

The prophets primarily spoke the word of a moral God in application to religious experience, the existing religious institution, and public life. But the prophet, in it all, remained primarily a chosen man “forth-telling” God’s message to a chosen people. 

Witness beyond the covenant 

There are exceptions, however, and these more directly relate to the usual understanding of Christian proclamation. Two Old Testament passages are clearly evangelistic. Jonah 3:2 records that God commanded the prophet to “go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the preaching that I tell you.” Jonah’s mission was evangelistic, for he was to preach to the Gentiles. Two words for proclaim, “to call” and “to preach,” are used in Isaiah’s announcement of coming salvation (Isa. 61:1-2). Jesus’ use of the Isaiah passage to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4:16-21) proves it to be both eschatological and evangelistic. 

In addition to the Jonah and Isaiah passages, two New Testament references reflect Old Testament proclamation as redemptive outreach. Jude 14 states that Enoch “prophesied.” Second Peter 2:5 describes Noah as a “preacher of righteousness.” The noun used in the latter verse is “herald,” a term employed in the New Testament to describe one who heralds the gospel message to the world. These are the only clear references to redemptive witness beyond the covenant in the Old Testament. 

The Jonah passage, however, reminds us of Israel’s redemptive mission to the world, an important facet of proclamation in the Old Testament. God made that mission clear in his call to Abram (Genesis 12:2). Although the nation failed to fulfill her mission and thus was dispossessed of her redemptive opportunity, individuals within the nation had a growing consciousness of Israel’s intended world-wide destiny. The prophets spoke primarily to those within the covenant, but they did so in an effort to bring them to fulfill the nation’s purpose in salvation-history. In this emphasis on the people of God as God’s chosen instruments to bless a world, the Old Testament speaks with eloquent and solemn clarity to the Christian church concerning the responsibility of Christian witness. 

Evangelistic proclamation possibly can be implied elsewhere in the Old Testament. John A. Broadus calls the addresses of the patriarchs “ancient sermons.”[1]John A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1901), I, 5-10. Some of the prophets, rising above the narrow nationalism of Israel, dared to take possession of the entire world in the name of the sovereign Jehovah and often called all the nations of the earth to judgment (Isa. 10:5-19, Amos 1:2-3). Some have spoken of the prophets as more nearly possessing and proclaiming what we now call the gospel than has been generally supposed. Nevertheless, Edwin C. Dargan reflects the best conclusion to be drawn from the Old Testament evidences, “Prophecy was preparation only.”[2]Edwin C. Dargan, A History of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954), p. 21.

The Old Testament as foundational for Christian proclamation 

Preparation, as foundational, however, is essential. At least three important areas of the Christian witness are foreshadowed in the Old Testament. 

God’s election and deliverance of Israel clearly revealed his purpose to redeem man. The Christian’s inescapable responsibility to bear witness to his faith comes from the nature and initiative of God before it arises from the nature of man or the essence of the Christian experience. The heart of God has not changed. God’s search for the fallen Adam is as contemporary as his continuing appeal to rebellious man. But his redemption of sinful humanity required a deed of redemption. His election of Israel as a chosen nation was a primary act in the salvation-history in which Christians are now involved as proclaimers of the gospel. 

Further, the Old Testament words for proclamation, though used almost exclusively in a general context or as exhortation addressed to Israel, cast light on the nature of the Christian witness. Such meanings as “announce” or “to cause a voice to pass over” (Neh. 8:15), “to call” (Jer. 3:12), “to cause to hear” (Isa. 62:11), “to cry as a herald” (Daniel 5:29), and “to preach” (Psalm 40:9) have their New Testament counterparts. They give insight into the nature, means, and urgency of the task of proclamation. 

Finally, the prophets are usually regarded as of most vital significance in the Old Testament’s preparation for the preaching of the gospel. The Christian preacher, in many respects, descends from the Old Testament seers. In his call, his speaking for God out of a close personal relationship with him, and his address to the specific needs of his own time, he clearly walks in the path of the Old Testament prophet. 

In summary, the Old Testament gives relatively rare insight into evangelistic proclamation. Its greatest contribution comes in its more common emphasis on exhortation to the covenant people. But God’s effort to use his people redemptively, the Old Testament terms for exhortation, and the influence of the prophets upon the contemporary preacher are clearly preparatory for a New Testament understanding of proclamation and witness. 

The New Testament—The Act and Content of Christian Proclamation 

There are several words in the New Testament which describe the act and content of the proclamation of the gospel. The use of these different terms assures us that witnessing is no narrow concept in New Testament thought. Preaching, in the context of worship, though central to the meaning of Christian witness, does not exhaust it. 

The act of witness 

The several words for the act of witness can be considered under three categories. They are: words that deal with address to the world, terms that describe address to unbelievers primarily but which are sometimes used in a Christian context, and words pertaining to address to the Christian community. 

Address to unbelievers. Two words are consistently used in the New Testament to refer to proclamation as witness to the unsaved. One of these words means “to proclaim as a herald.” Translation usually renders it “herald,” or “preach,” and more rarely “proclaim.” The word pictures a chosen herald of the king riding through the realm proclaiming whatever message the sovereign has decreed. Used of the Christian herald, it denotes the proclamation of the gospel. It inevitably refers, in its fifty or more usages in the New Testament, to evangelistic proclamation to unbelievers, not address to believers within the Christian community. 

The other word everywhere referring to proclamation of the gospel to those who have not heard it before means “to tell good news.” This term occurs approximately seventy times in the New Testament and describes the nature of the message of Christian proclamation. The appearance of the word in Acts 8:35 proves that preaching in the New Testament vocabulary is a much broader term than has been commonly accepted. Speaking of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, the verse reads, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” Evidently preaching, in the sense of “telling good news,” occurs in personal witnessing as well as in public proclamation! We do well to remember two things about these words “to herald” and “to proclaim good news.” These are the New Testament’s most frequent words for proclamation or preaching, and they consistently refer to address to unbelievers. 

Address to the world and the church. Other words occur less frequently in the New Testament to describe Christian preaching. John’s gospel uses a graphic term, “witness,” which pictures proclamation as the giving of a testimony based on personal experience. Paul describes the seriousness of proclamation in the use of “witness” in 1 Cor. 15:15. One form of the word appears in such a passage as Acts 8:5 to depict the urgency of preaching. Used thus the word carries the idea “charge” and implies forceful presentation. 

A word meaning “to tell thoroughly” appears eighteen times in the writings of Paul and in Acts. It speaks of authority in preaching. The idea of witnessing as “speaking face to face” appears in the word translated “speak” in such passages as Matt. 13:13, Mark 4:33, and 1 Cor. 3:1. Like “to tell thoroughly,” it also suggests a characteristic of effective proclamation. 

An interesting insight into New Testament proclamation occurs in the use of the word translated “dispute.” Probably the earlier proclaimer reasoned, argued, perhaps even engaged in oral dialogue with his audience in some of his presentation of the gospel. 

In contrast with the terms “to herald” and “to proclaim good news,” these latter words do not always refer to address to unbelievers. For example, “to speak face to face” in Matt. 23:1 refers both to Jesus’ address to the multitude and to his disciples. Likewise, in 1 Cor. 3:1 it describes address to the church. “Dispute” occurs in Acts 27 in the context of the Christian fellowship at Troas. The word “witness on the basis of personal testimony” describes admonition to Christians in Eph. 4:17. 

Address to the Christian community. Some words in the New Testament occur rather consistently to denote oral communication with the Christian community. The predominant word is “to teach,” meaning “to hold discourse for purposes of instruction.” The term appears approximately one hundred times to describe the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Often the word’s usage indicates a clear distinction between the acts of preaching and teaching in the ministry of Christ. Matt. 4:23 reads “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” The same comparison can be seen in Matt. 9:35 and 11:1. There can be no doubt that “to teach,” both in the ministry of Christ and in the witness of the apostles, primarily meant to instruct believers in doctrine and Christian living, as contrasted with sharing the gospel with unbelievers described in the terms “to herald” and “to proclaim good news.” Such teaching was based, however, on the gospel content proclaimed to the world. 

Other terms having to do with instruction of the believer are “instruct” (Gal. 6:6), “reprove” (2 Tim. 4:2) and “train” (Titus 2:12). The idea of exhortation occurs frequently in the New Testament and usually in the context of supportive preaching to the believer. The prevalent word used means “to call to one’s side to help.” Once this term appears as a synonym for preaching and in this case it refers to the proclamation of John (Luke 3:18). The Pauline epistles and Acts often use the term to refer to preaching. Frequently the meaning is the encouragement of new Christians. 

The New Testament terms present a threefold purpose in the act of the oral presentation of the gospel—to evangelize, to teach, and to strengthen the Christian life. Three words emerge as of major importance in an understanding of biblical proclamation: (a) “to herald,” (b) “to proclaim the good news,” and (c) “to teach.” 

The content of Christian proclamation 

Before considering a problem which the three words just mentioned raise, it will be profitable to study the content of New Testament proclamation. 

The preaching of Jesus. The preaching of Jesus was largely the proclamation of the kingdom of God and of his place in redemptive history. On the basis of such proclamation, Jesus urgently called men to repentance. He also spoke of the discipline and ethical standards of kingdom citizenship, sought to mature spiritually the people of the kingdom as the new community, and proclaimed the centrality of his redemptive deed in salvation-history. 

The preaching of the apostles. Apostolic proclamation centered in the Christ-event—the teaching and the saving acts of Christ. Such preaching united the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Sermons of the early church heralded the redemptive work of Christ to an unbelieving world. 

The content of apostolic proclamation can be generally summarized as follows: (a) In Jesus the redemptive promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled, (b) In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus redemptive history has reached its climax, (c) Jesus has been exalted as Lord and Saviour, (d) The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory, (e) Salvation will reach its consummation and history will be terminated at the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead, and (f ) On the basis of God’s work in Christ, men should repent and commit themselves to Christ as Saviour and Lord, receiving forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Such content has come to be known as kerygmatic preaching, based upon Paul’s descriptive term kerygma, used to designate the gospel message proclaimed. This does not mean that every New Testament sermon contained all of the points just outlined. Rather, these points formed the essence of early preaching, the theology of New Testament sermons. At this point it should be noted that it is the message and not the act of preaching which Paul has in mind in 1 Cor. 1:21, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Although the act and content of preaching cannot be separated, it is not the act of preaching that the world calls foolishness. It is the cross, the content of Christian preaching, which is a scandal of folly. In passing, it is well to note also that this verse implies that there are many ways by which the gospel can be proclaimed. God uses the gospel itself, not one particular means of communicating it, to convict men. 

In contrast to kerygma, or preaching, didache, or teaching, describes the content of New Testament instruction of believers. But it is the purpose of presentation rather than the content which basically distinguishes between kerygma and didache. A study of the New Testament indicates that the content of apostolic teaching was (a) the words of Jesus, (b) ethics of the Christian life, (c) doctrine, (d) the Old Testament. Basically, however, the content of teaching and the content of preaching are the same. Acts 4:18 declares that Peter and John were forbidden both to speak and to teach in the name of Jesus, indicating that claims regarding Christ were the content of both speaking and teaching. Acts 5:42 confirms that the early disciples “ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” The work of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch was “teaching and preaching the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:35). 

A Problem — Is Proclamation Limited to Gospel Witnesses to Unbelievers? 

The discussion of the biblical language for proclamation raises a problem for a definition of Christian witness. Since the New Testament regularly uses different terms to refer to preaching and teaching, and since, of much greater significance, it usually distinguishes between the audience addressed in preaching and teaching, are we to believe that the two acts are mutually exclusive and totally distinct? Does the minister preach in the New Testament sense if his sermon is addressed to the church? Are teaching and comforting excluded from proclamation? 

The current resurgence of biblical theology has brought the problem into sharp focus. Many scholars insist, on the basis of New Testament terminology, that proclamation must be exclusively evangelistic in purpose. C. H. Dodd contends that for the early church to preach was far different from delivering moral instruction or exhortation. He argues that the church was interested in passing on the teaching of the Lord, but insists that it did not make converts thereby. “It was by kerygma (the thing preached), says Paul, not by didache (the thing taught), that it pleased God to save men.”[3]C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950), p. 6. Alan Richardson holds the same view. “In the New Testament preaching has nothing to do with the delivery of sermons to the converted, which is what it usually means today, but always concerns the proclamation of the ‘good tidings of God’ to the non-Christian world.”[4]Alan Richardson, editor, A Theological Wordbook of the Bible (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1957), pp. 171-72. It is clear that those who hold this position narrow the scope of Christian proclamation sharply. 

But the position is too emphatic. It overstates a valid New Testament truth. The biblical language makes for a valid distinction between preaching and teaching, both in purpose and, in some sense, in content. Most certainly it defines the message of any true proclamation as God’s redemptive act in Christ. But the biblical context does not force an understanding that preaching and teaching are mutally [sic] exclusive. It does not limit proclamation to evangelistic witness, though evangelism is at the heart of Christian witness. What biblical evidence will support such a conclusion? 

For one thing, though the prevalent words for proclamation, “to herald” and “to proclaim good news,” consistently refer to witness to unbelievers, other words which convey the idea of preaching and proclamation are not so confined. Some of them refer to address within the Christian community. 

Again, the fact that “to herald” or “to proclaim the good news,” and “to teach” usually refer to address with distinct objectives, it does not follow that they are never used interchangeably. Matt. 4:23 describes Jesus as teaching and preaching in the synagogues of Galilee, but Mark 1:39, the companion passage, summarizes Jesus’ ministry in the word “preached.” Luke also refers to Jesus’ total ministry in the synagogues of Galilee in terms of “preaching” (Luke 4:44). Mark 1:21-22 calls Jesus’ work in the synagogue at Capernaum teaching, but the author switches the terminology to preaching in 1:39 in a description of Jesus’ continuing ministry in the “next towns” and synagogues of Galilee. Although preaching and teaching cannot be equated, it would appear that Mark and Luke, at least in these passages, think of preaching as being sufficiently broad to include teaching. In similar fashion Luke sees the word “preach,” literally to “tell thoroughly,” in Acts 17:3 to summarize Paul’s ministry of explaining and reasoning with the Thessalonican Jews. 

It would be difficult also to prove dogmatically that “to teach” is always used with reference to address to believers only. Unbelieving Jews are in the context of John 6:59 and 7:14. Critical Pharisees are among those “taught” in John 8:20. 

A prime illustration of the occasional interchange of the words for preaching and teaching occurs in Colossians 1:27-28. There Paul speaks of Christ “whom we proclaim.” The word used means “to tell thoroughly,” and is one of the New Testament terms most frequently used to mean proclamation to an unbelieving world. But Paul then uses two participles to show the means by which Christ is proclaimed. The two participles are “admonishing” and “teaching.” In this instance proclamation clearly is large enough to include teaching. 

A final evidence offered against the view that preaching and teaching are mutually exclusive in the New Testament is that ultimately both are concerned with God’s redemptive act in Christ. Teaching explains in detail the message proclaimed. Preaching lays the foundation and teaching builds the superstructure. Without both the building is incomplete. As H. H. Farmer writes of proclamation, “If the context is always God’s saving activity through history in Christ, and if the focus is the encounter of that saving activity with those who listen, then nothing that does not fog that context or blur that focus need be excluded.”[5]H. H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word (London: Nisbet & Co., 1942), p. 30.

This brief study of biblical context for Christian proclamation now leads us to draw several important conclusions: (1) Christian proclamation is the act of giving testimony to God’s redemptive work in Christ; (2) Proclamation centers in the declaration of redemption to the unbelieving world; (3) Proclamation also involves teaching and exhorting believers, instructing them, upon the basis of the gospel of redemption, in the Christian faith, disciplining, warning, and encouraging them; (4) Preaching in the context of worship is of the most vital concern for Christian proclamation; (5) Proclamation, however, is not confined to public address but involves personal witness and every other medium for the propagation of the gospel. 


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