Persuasion Through Personality
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 4:17a (Holman) From then on. . .
By entering Galilee, Jesus went to the fringe. For us to follow His example, we must go to the margins, to people hard to win. We need to have unbelievers in the routine orb of our social lives. For this to happen, many of us, including me, will have to go out of our way and be intentional about it.
Many have for years had an isolationist mentality: them versus us. We must shatter this barrier, and find ways to include unbelievers in our lives.
By entering Galilee, Jesus went where John the Baptist had not preached. To follow Jesus’ example, we have to go to places not yet reached.
Jesus began to spread His good news over a much larger territory. We are to act as He did. I read of a missionary who hacked through a jungle footpath to be the first to carry the Gospel to a remote village. As he stepped from the underbrush, he saw at the village entrance a Coca Cola sign. It’s not right for the secular to reach the ends of the earth before the sacred does.
Spreading the Gospel should always be progressive, ever advancing. It came first to Jews (Jerusalem and Judea), then to Gentiles (Samaria and the world). Our mission is to the ends of the Earth, beginning next door.
Matt. 4:17b . . .Jesus began to preach,. . .
In spiritual warfare, when Jesus picked His weapon, He chose words. To promote His Kingdom, He preached, taught, witnessed, talked, etc., before crowds, along the way, at a well, beside a lake. He also taught us to preach, teach, witness, and talk in our lives. Our interaction with unbelievers takes on various techniques, but in the final analysis, we are to use words.
The point I am making today is illustrated primarily from my chosen profession, preaching. But what I will picture here about preachers also applies to laypeople. To speak of Christian talking as if it is only standing behind a lectern is to miss a vital point in what Jesus wanted us to do.
In spiritual warfare, what we call preaching is but one weapon in our communication arsenal. From it other word-weapons come, such as singing, teaching, witnessing, drama, etc. We must all use words in sharing our faith.
This is why I am not fond of statements like “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Statements like this do remind us we are to live attractive lives to make the Gospel winsome to unbelievers. Where the breakdown comes is; living a holy life without using words to give a verbal explanation extolling Jesus’ power in us brings glory to us, not to Jesus. It is possible to live an upright life for years, and Jesus receive none of the glory.
Words, our power weapons, are very personal. They rise from inside us, and go deep into people’s hearts. Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal preacher who authored “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and led Helen Keller to Christ, gave my favorite definition of preaching, “Persuasion through personality”.
This should define all our efforts at talking up the story of Jesus. We are all expected to exert “Persuasion through personality” toward unbelievers. Preaching well illustrates the power words can produce.
In seminary I was taught the four greatest centuries of Christian history were one, four, sixteen, and nineteen. Down the hall in another class I was told the four greatest centuries of Christian preaching were one, four, sixteen, and nineteen. Let me hasten to add, these were four centuries marked also by holy gossip flying out of people’s lips. The conversation by believers with a lost and dying world was underway big time. Jesus taught us to engage unbelievers in conversation. Talk, brothers and sisters, talk.
Right now, our culture is talking about religious stuff. News networks have religion editors, and newspapers report religion: some of this helps, and some hurts, but what matters most is; the conversation is under way.
Sometimes the secular media better understands what interests people than conservative Christians do. Revival has not come to these news outlets. Having done their homework, research has enabled them to know what people want to know about. One is religion. Talk, brothers and sisters, talk.
Let me digress to share a personal lament about my chosen profession, which resides in the domain of words. I am horrified at how many in my generation have brutalized the art of preaching. “Don’t preach at me” is a derogatory remark we often hear, as is “As dull (or dry) as a sermon”.
An old joke says one preacher was so dry that when his manuscript flew out a window and was eaten by a dairy cow, it went dry. I have long said if a sermon is boring and people are not listening, the preacher might as well be speaking in tongues. Words were meant for better use than this.
Even the atheist David Hume, who hated everything Christian, said of Pastor John Brown of Haddington, “Yon’s the man for me; he preaches as if he were conscious that Christ was at his elbow.” Our President Lincoln said, “When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”
Words, dear people, words—use them powerfully and often. The Greek word translated here as “preach” has rich implications for us all.
It meant to herald, to say what someone other than the speaker wanted said. Jesus said, “I have not spoken on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a command as to what I should say” (John 12:49).
The news we are to tell others is the good news we have been told. God’s Son died and rose (1 Cor. 15:3). To talk, we do not have to be great theologians. We only relate history we have been told. Speak the Gospel. If you’re asked questions you can’t answer, we’ll find people to do it for you.
The word “preach” also denoted talking with authority. When a herald spoke for the King, the message was given with confidence. “Thus saith the King” was his mantra. He had no doubt about the content of his message.
A herald spoke with authority for someone else; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As we use words in the warfare, whether preacher in the pulpit or layperson in the pew, we herald with authority when we lean on the Bible.
In my first decade of pulpit ministry, I preached each Sunday on topics I deemed needful. I would develop a relevant thought, and then find Scriptures to back it up. Nothing is inherently wrong with this approach, but it created huge anxiety for me. By Thursday each week I could feel a knot growing in my stomach as to what I would be preaching on the next Sunday.
In my mid-20s, Cliff Palmer, then Pastor of First Baptist, Springdale, Arkansas, held a revival for me at Gosnell Baptist Church. I talked to him about preaching. He convinced me to go through the Bible verse by verse.
He felt what God had set forth progressively in the Book was more important than what I might think was important. He taught me to have confidence in the Bible, to believe it, open it, and explain it. I still preach topics (e.g. finances, missions, holiday themes) from time to time. Some emphases are occasionally needed. The bulk of my preaching is an effort to take a Bible passage, try to explain it with an interesting point or two, and look at it from viewpoints we have not considered before, but the essential message is drawn from the Book. I am a herald announcing it, preaching it with certainty, and resting under the authority of “Thus saith the Lord”.
John Calvin had it right. When he joined the Reformation, he took an axe, demolished the altar in his church, and then built a pulpit high and lifted up, over which a speaker could barely be seen. A preacher would climb steps into the pulpit, put a Bible on it, wear a robe so as not to call attention away from the Scripture, and then speak over the Bible to the people on the other side. The emphasis was a voice, words, and persuasion through personality.
Though these examples have come from preaching, my primary professional task since I was a teenager, the application is for everyone, for all of us who have a voice, who can talk, who can herald the message.