It figures that if we are going to talk about the importance and significance of preaching the word, then we have a responsibility to establish what it actually means to preach the word. Not what it means in today’s usage, but rather to understand what it meant to preach the word in the times in which the apostle Paul urged his young protégé, Timothy, to do so (2nd Timothy 4:2).
The modern church is obsessed with etymology – that is the history of words and their root meanings. Sometimes, this can be a useful thing. At other times, it serves only to puff people up by making them look super-spiritual. Therefore, our understanding of the phrase, preach the word, has to be much more than understanding the root of the words preach and word. Though these are important issues which we will discuss, their root meaning doesn’t necessarily explain their 1st century usage. I have no desire to over-complicate the issue at hand, but rather to reveal God’s heart behind the method by which He long chose to communicate to His people with. He chose to use words, and the spoken word at that. He could have given all He ever wanted to say on stone tablets, as he did with the Ten Commandments, but instead, He chose to have His words spoken out by the people whom He chose to do so.
Our trouble with an etymological approach (looking at the root meanings) to the words preach and word is that we tend to only look to the Greek language for answers. This is because the overwhelming majority of manuscripts we have for the books and letters of the New Testament are written in Greek, which was the common language at the time. Not the common spoken language. Just the common written language. This might seem unimportant to you. It probably is, and I only mention it because it is very easy to forgot that the people who wrote the books and letters of the New Testament were, by and large, Hebrew men, who spoke Hebrew, and who wrote Hebrew.
It should be noted that the earliest dated manuscript of any New Testament book or letter is a fragment of John’s gospel which is dated from the first half of 2nd century AD. This means that it was likely to be a copy of the original, which scholars widely accept to have been written around AD 85. I strongly suspect that the original was written in Hebrew, John’s first language, before later being translated into other languages including Aramaic and Greek. Recently, a scholar of Hebrew writings by the name of Nehemiah Gordon, has made discovery of evidence which supports such a theory. He has found several manuscripts of what is known as Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew which strongly suggests that Matthew’s gospel was first written in Hebrew, before being translated into Aramaic, and then from Aramaic into Greek.
Why am I bringing all this up? Well, simply because if it turns out that these Hebrew men whom God chose to preach His word, happened to write down what that word was in Hebrew first, before the Greek translations, then a great deal of the original meaning and sentiment and Hebrew word plays and cultural references could have been lost in translation. Therefore, to spend any great length of time dissecting and pulling apart Greek words actually serves no real purpose. The Greek words which were used in translation were just those with the nearest available meaning to the Hebrew original, and probably arrived at via Aramaic language first. It is to the Hebrew to which we should look. God spoke Hebrew, after all.
Some of you will be thinking how can we possibly get the Hebrew meaning for the words preach and word from any of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? Well, thankfully, Yeshua left us a breadcrumb trail of clues the very first time He was recorded speaking in public.
In Luke’s gospel, and chapter four, we have the account of Yeshua, at the very start of what we tend to call His Galilean Ministry, coming to the synagogue at Nazareth. This was His home town (until He moved to Capernaum) and He would have been well known in this synagogue. It is highly likely that He would have studied under the Rabbi there. It is also highly likely that by the age of twenty, He would have been able to speak under the authority of His Rabbi in the Synagogue, and to sit in the Seat of Moses when He did so. At some stage, His Rabbi would have recognised that his disciple had surpassed him in understanding the Scriptures, and told Him that it was time to go and find disciples of His own. Luke’s account records an event somewhere between being let go by His Rabbi and choosing His own disciples.
Hebrew traditions were such that not just anyone could stand up and read from the scroll in the synagogue. You had to be either recognised as a Rabbi, or were under the authority of a Rabbi who would vouch for you. You will remember that often the teachers of the Law would say to Yeshua ‘by whose authority do you teach these things?‘. This was understandable because of their traditions.
One of their other traditions, which is still widely used today, is that of the Parashah, or Torah portion. Each Shabbat (Saturday to you and me), at the synagogue, a fixed portion of The Torah, The Prophets, and The Writings, are read out. The Torah is the first five books of our Bible, which are known as the Five Books of Moses. Torah simply means instruction. The Prophets refer to all the prophets from Samuel through to Malachi, and everything else, such as the Psalms and Proverbs, and the Chronicles are included in The Writings. Once a week, a portion from each section of the Tanakh (the Old Testament) was read out, and the rest of the day was filled with discussion of what each portion meant, often continuing late into the first day of the week, which would have begun at sundown on Saturday evening. This discussion time still happens today, and is called havdalah. It is likely that the account of Paul speaking late into the night found in Acts chapter twenty was a havdalah.
You couldn’t choose which portion you read. Each of the three sections of the Tanakh were divided into roughly equal portions so that all of the Old Testament would be covered in a single year, every year. When Yeshua walked into the synagogue that Shabbat morning and was invited to speak, the scroll was already chosen. It was no accident which scroll was handed to Him. And it was no accident where the scroll was opened. It would have opened exactly where the previous week’s portion left off.
“And He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And, having unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of Yehovah is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor; He has sent Me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are downtrodden; to proclaim the acceptable year of Yehovah.”
Then He closed the scroll, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” ” [Luke 4:17-21]
Let’s take a look at the breadcrumbs and why I have selected this passage in order to explain what preaching the word is all about. Firstly, the scroll from which Yeshua read, we know was originally written in Hebrew, and therefore we can look to the Hebrew version of the passage from the scroll of Isaiah, in this case Isaiah 61:1-2a, and see which Hebrew word was translated as preach.
In fact, what we find when we look at the original Hebrew is that a single Hebrew word actually covers four of our English words in translation:
‘to preach good news’
‘basar’ – to bear good news.
That is to say, that the word was frequently used to describe the actions of a herald or a messenger bringing good news. So, what Yeshua declared to the congregation at the synagogue, was that God had anointed Him to be the bearer of a message of good news from God Himself. The message which followed, was the good news itself.
And what we are left with, the breadcrumbs, is that even with the coming of Yeshua, God hadn’t changed His method of delivering news, good or bad, to His people. He only anointed people whom He knew could be obedient, to speak out His word truthfully, accurately, and completely. And this methodology continued with the disciples and those whom the Holy Spirit selected in the early church.
So, to preach is to tell people of God’s good news. To preach the word is to tell people of God’s good news concerning the person of Yeshua, who is The Word. This is why Paul insisted on only preaching Christ and Him crucified, for that was what God had anointed Him to preach. He veered neither to the left or to the right of that. He only preached that which God had given him, through the Holy Spirit, to preach.
It is clear that God chose not to change His delivery method when Yeshua came preaching the good news. But something did change. It is important that we grasp this, for if we don’t then God’s word, His seed, will continued to be mixed, and then church will slide obliviously into the judgement of God. To see what changed, we need to return to a section of text from the start of the letter to the Hebrews. It tells us how God worked in times past and how He works in these last days. It is important that we grasp that whilst the delivery method hasn’t changed, the message has.
“God , who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…” [Hebrews 1:1-2 NKJV]
In the context of what we are talking about, let’s recap what this passage means. It says that in the past God gave His words, both good and bad, to the people through those whom He chose; in this case the writer says prophets, but we know God also did the same through Priests and Kings as well. And once He used a donkey too. And that was then. Now, with the coming of Yeshua, God’s anointed, in these last days – these days that lead up to the end of time as we currently know it, He has chosen to speak to us by way of His Son. He continues to say that God has appointed Yeshua as the heir of all things. In Hebrew culture when a father appointed his eldest son as heir, he gave that son charge over everything he owned.
Now, this is where our shortcomings as fleshy people are slightly exposed. The text says that God has spoken to us by His Son. This is true, Yeshua did speak to us, many of His words are recorded in the gospels. However, we must also recognise that Yeshua, Himself, is The Word of God. Previously God spoke to a third party to speak to His people. Since He sent Yeshua, there is no need for that, because He sent His Word in person. Therefore, what it means to preach the word, is actually to only preach what Yeshua said and did. Beyond that, there is nothing else we should be preaching. That is why Paul only preached Christ, and Him crucified, because that is God’s final message before His Son returns to us in vengeance and judgement. And if you are unsure that He will return in vengeance and judgement then I recommend you look up Isaiah chapter sixty-one and read on from where Yeshua left off at the synagogue. The reason why He only read the first verse and a half of the scroll is because that was all He came to fulfil on His first coming. His second coming will see Him fulfil the rest.
This, hopefully, explains what it means to preach the word as God intended. It would be prudent to address exactly who should be preaching that word. There appears to be much confusion in today’s church as to what qualifies someone to preach the word.
Those whom were first appointed to tell the good news of Yeshua were the twelve disciples. We know that Yeshua told them to ‘preach as you go’ (Matthew 10:7, Luke 9:2), and that He also commissioned seventy to do the same (Luke 10:9). Later, before He ascended back to Heaven, He commissioned His disciples to go and make disciples. These were not to be their disciples, but His, and therefore would be commissioned to do the same as they had been. A disciple can only be made from a believer. Yeshua picked His disciples carefully. In fact, we know from John’s gospel that they were given to Him by God, Himself (John 17:6). So, when we pick people to make disciples for Yeshua, we should employ the same methods – that is the seeking of God’s guidance. This was, and still is, part of the reason why He left His Holy Spirit with us – to help us make the right choices. We can see this approach in action in Acts chapter 13 when the Holy Spirit tells those present to separate Barnabus and Paul for the work He has for them.
We seemed to have forgotten this. And Paul Himself empathises this principle later on in his letter to the church at Ephesus. The text I am going to include is one of the most misquoted texts used by the church. Misquoted and misunderstood because modern preachers think it is about spiritual gifts. It is about who chooses who and who does what.
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers.” [Ephesians 4:11]
This is Paul writing to the church at Ephesus about Yeshua, who has now ascended to be at the Father’s right hand, and who has now been put in charge of everything, and especially the church, of which He is the head. Paul tells us that it is Yeshua who appoints apostles. It is Yeshua who appoints prophets. It is Yeshua who appoints evangelists. It is Yeshua who appoints shepherds and teachers.
I only mention this because today’s church appears to be filled to overflowing with those who have appointed themselves to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. These roles aren’t theirs to appoint themselves. Only Yeshua can chose whom He wants. Just because someone goes to Bible College or a Seminary doesn’t mean that they have been chosen by God. In fact, I’m of the opinion that they are probably precluded by doing so. Let us get back to seeking God and waiting for Him to show us His choice.
Finally, I want to make an important point about what was actually preached by the disciples of the 1st century AD. What we call the New Testament wasn’t actually compiled in a single volume until either the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. When Paul wrote to Timothy that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration from God’ (2nd Timothy 3:16), he was talking about the Tanakh. The New Testament hadn’t yet been compiled. This means that the early church, who were made up almost entirely of Hebrews, only had two sources to draw upon. As Hebrews, who would have attended synagogue every Shabbat since they could walk, they would have known the Tanakh. Since the coming of Yeshua, they would have learned that all they knew from the Scriptures, all pointed to Him. So, the two sources they had to draw upon was the Tanakh and Yeshua Himself. But further to that, they had the Holy Spirit. If God had chosen them to be set aside as preachers, it was on the understanding that the delivery method hadn’t changed. God would give them the words to speak, just as He gave the prophets of old the words. You can see this clearly in the speeches of Peter and Stephen in the book of Acts.
And we must remember that once the message was opened up to the Gentiles, that is all non-Hebrews, that they didn’t have the built in knowledge of the Tanakh, they only had the Holy Spirit. And that is God’s model for us. He wants to appoint preachers Himself and give them the words Himself. I think it’s about time that we got back to letting Him. Not that He needs our permission. He just needs us to be willing to do His will.
In the next part we shall look at what happened to the church as the Gentiles poured in.