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In a classroom at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary back in 1976, Dr. Jimmy Millikin was facilitating a theological discussion when one of my fellow seminarians asked him to explain what was meant by “unction” in the matter of preaching. While I cannot recall all the details of his answer, I do remember quite well the part where he made this statement: “Gentlemen, there’s preachin’…and then there’s PREACHIN’!”
I believe every student in that classroom understood what he meant: a homily delivered with the help of heaven! No emotion is as deflating to a preacher as walking from the pulpit knowing that the Spirit of God had no part in the sermon. Contrariwise, no emotional high can match the blessed assurance that the God of heaven SHOWED UP, that he was IN the preaching, and that he GRACED his messenger with other-worldly POWER!
It is abundantly clear that Paul and Barnabas, on the first mission journey, were well-acquainted with the latter emotion and virtual strangers to the first. The biblical text of Acts 14:1-7 describes a preaching event that took place in the synagogue at Iconium, where “they…so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed” (14:1). Our focus is the “so” preaching of Paul and Barnabas.
Exactly what is “so” preaching? It is preaching that is impregnated with both power and passion. As they came to the city, the scripture says they were “filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost” (13:52). There is no reason to believe either of these ingredients was lacking in the oratory. So is the adverb houtos, which signifies the extent or degree to which an action is performed. It is the adverb Jesus used to describe the God that “so loved” the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16). At a minimum, “so” preaching means they held nothing back!
A third (and not so obvious) element in “so” preaching is that of precision. The apostle Paul wielded truth much like a surgeon would his scalpel. He would cite OT texts, build and link together irrefutable evidence, and prove the Messianic case for Christ (Acts 13:14-39). Apollos was a preacher cut out of the same mold (Acts 18:28). If precision worked for Paul and Apollos, why would any preacher want to enter the pulpit without it?
What is the formula for “so” preaching? Power + Passion + Precision = Persuasion! Luke describes the outcome in a way that would lead a reader to conclude that preaching with no “so” in it would have reduced the greatness of the multitude that believed it. What conclusion can we draw from the thousands of churches that go year after year without baptizing a single convert? I conclude that too many of America’s pulpits are filled by professional and professorial types who possess neither power nor passion in that which they preach! The late pitchman Billy Mays demonstrated that even a secular brand of passion was sufficient to persuade millions to spend millions on gadgets. How much more should a spiritual passion mingled with power and precision enable the “so” preacher to persuade lost men toward Christ?
Three brief observations are in order. First, “so” preaching has its detractors. In this case (as was often the case), the detractors were the unbelieving Jews (14:2). Their objective was to evil-affect minds. Consider these related words: traction, detraction and detractor. Traction (or its lack) might form the mental image of a car spinning its tires in the mud…unable to make forward progress. In TV coverage of the 2010 winter storms, we saw vehicles abandoned at the bottom of inclines for lack of traction due to layers of snow and ice. Such a loss of traction is detraction. The detractors were essentially seeking to layer the minds of lost men with the frozen precipitation of doubt and disbelief so as to prevent the gospel from gaining traction in the minds of those who heard it.
Secondly, “so” preaching has its defenders. The foremost defender of “so” preaching is the Lord himself. In the face of fierce opposition, Jesus was on the scene to provide signs and wonders as authentication for the message (14:3). A sign points the observer to the greater divine reality behind it. A wonder is meant to create a sense of awe that will drive the observer to pursue the God who granted it. The “so” preacher, as a God-anointed irritant for his detractors, can hang around a “long time” as long as the Lord is around to validate his ministry. We are also told that “part” of the city “held with” (defended) the apostles in the division caused by the “so” preaching (14:4). There’s nothing wrong with partisanship if you’re in the right party!
Thirdly, “so” preaching has its dangers. In time, the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles conspired to assault Paul and Barnabas, use them despitefully, and stone them (14:5). I am inclined to believe that the despiteful use they had in mind was on the order of what Jesus endured on the eve of his crucifixion. At this point, the apostles fled the city, and lived to preach another day (14:6). Sometimes the best course of action for the “so” preacher is moving on to another venue…but not until his Defender-In-Chief gives the green light to do so.
The “so” preacher is alive and well today. But he represents a minority of the pulpit population. Frankly, a lot of churches do not want to deal with the baggage he brings. In every location where he shows up, you can count on detractors and dangers showing up as well. Blessed are those churches that have one. If your pastor is a “so” preacher, pray for him, and join the Lord Jesus as one of his defenders. And may our Lord increase his tribe!