Published on June 20, 2024 by Douglas Webster  

This article first appeared in the 2024 Beeson magazine, and is taken from the preface of Doug Webster’s latest book, "More than a Sermon: the Purpose and Practice of Christian Preaching."

The prophets and the apostles used a variety of metaphors to describe the impact of God’s Word. Jeremiah likened preaching God’s Word to fire burning up straw or a hammer breaking a rock. Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord represents the other end of the preaching spectrum: “He will not cry aloud, or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” The Word of God is a double-edged sword, confronting and comforting, convicting, and consoling, judging and saving.

These two metaphors, the rock and reed, encompass the power and the wisdom of God to cover the full range of human need. The power of God’s Word to achieve its purposes is never in doubt, but our ability to swing the hammer that breaks hard hearts and our ability to preach so as not to break a bruised reed remains the preacher’s challenge. Left to ourselves it is impossible, but in the Spirit, it is not only possible, but a personal and practical necessity.

Anyone who follows the Lord Jesus Christ and seeks to communicate God’s Word faces the rock and reed challenge. For fathers and mothers, it is a daily concern. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends and co-workers, need to discern when to deliver a prophetic word and when to appeal with a comforting word. Pastors ought to lead the way in showing the household of faith how to use God’s Word to strengthen conviction and to show compassion.

If it is our deep desire to present “everyone mature in Christ,” (Colossians 1:28) we will face the rock and reed challenge. This involves helping believers use God’s Word to “discern what is best” so we all may be “filled with the fruit of righteousness” (Philippians 1:9-11). The goal for all Christ’s followers is to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” and “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 5:10; 4:1-3).

Good preaching is grounded in God’s Word and helps believers think for themselves, so that they are no longer “conformed to this world” but “transformed by the renewal of [their] mind” (Romans 12:2). If pastors preach the whole counsel of God, they will find the hammer that smashes rocks and the grace that protects the bruised reed.

Jesus illustrates rock and reed discernment in His dialogue with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. At the outset of Jesus’s public ministry, He preached the Gospel to two quite different people. Nicodemus was named-- his name meant “victor” --but she was unnamed. Nicodemus was a ruler among the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, an orthodox Pharisee, living in Jerusalem. He inquired of Jesus at night, perhaps out of privacy concerns. He may have come out of personal interest, or he may have come out of a sense of duty. By contrast, the unnamed woman was an ordinary person living in a rural Samaritan village. She was either a victim of great loss or great lust. She may have been marginalized because of her marital status. She belonged to the heretical sect of the Samaritans. Neither the man nor the woman would have had anything to do with each other for any number of reasons, but Jesus related to both in the most profound way.

These two individuals could not have been more different: Nicodemus was a self-confident, powerful Pharisee and she was an insecure Samaritan woman. She may have been an abused woman, a grieving widow, who was passed down from one brother to another or else a promiscuous woman. In any case, she came to the well at noon to avoid others and to draw water. She had no desire to relate to anyone, especially to a Jewish man sitting by the well.

Like a blacksmith hammering on an anvil, Jesus shattered Nicodemus’s self-confident religious worldview with His unexpected pronouncement, “You must be born again.” But to the Samaritan woman, a bruised reed if there ever was one, Jesus humbly requested a drink of water before offering the living water of eternal life.

The apostle John narrates these two strikingly different encounters side by side to draw out Jesus’s distinctive rock and reed approach to the Gospel. Throughout His ministry, Jesus met the preaching challenge. He shattered the rock of unbelief and protected the bruised reed. The Word preached has the power to shatter the hard-heartedness of the self-righteous and the power to comfort the insecure and brokenhearted. It confronts the oppressor and the oppressed alike with the Gospel of repentance, redemption and reconciliation.

The hard edge of prophetic conviction remains just as relevant today as it was in Jeremiah’s day.

The truth of the Gospel shatters the ideological captivity of our late modern age. It breaks the chains that bind hearts and minds. If we preach Acts 4:12, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” it is like a hammer blow against the rock of unbelief. Yet the beauty of Isaiah’s description of the one who does not break the bruised reed remains equally true. Like Paul, we are not ashamed of the Gospel because “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Good preaching involves both powerful exhortation and compassionate entreating.

My dear friend and colleague Robert Smith Jr. is devoted to the biblical principle that preachers preach so the people of God can preach.[1] Physical presence and personal engagement is critical to learning and genuine comprehension. Significant and edifying communication depends on being in communion with God and in community with one another. This is why in-person, in-community learning is so important at Beeson. I can’t imagine trying to raise kids online and I’m not so sure it is all that different for growing strong disciples. Preaching and teaching God’s Word is vital to this soul-shaping work, but it is best done in such a way as to relate to people and invite personal interaction.

Preaching is a dynamic, visceral, relational activity that cannot be contained in the study. Even my body tells me I’m going to preach hours ahead of time. Preaching is both a great burden and a driving passion, and even after many years, preaching doesn’t become any easier, but it becomes more significant.

[1] Robert Smith Jr. Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2008), 44.

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