Features, Preaching

Preaching as Longing

What do people do who long for something? They run toward it. This struck me anew on my way back from a recent mission trip to Ethiopia. Upon arriving back in the states my heart was longing to see my family. When I saw them for the first time in 10 days I made a beeline to embrace Anna and the kids. Indeed, longing is not a weak emotion—longing moves you to run toward the object of your affection.

Longing for Christ as Longing for Heaven

As Christians we long for Christ. Therefore, we design our lives around the single, earnest pursuit of Him. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In other words, our lives are not about seeking “all these things,” but Christ.

This is the note the author to the Hebrews strikes. He says that one of the ways we “run with endurance the race set before us” is by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2). The best runners in a race are not looking to their left or right or backwards, but ever forward to the goal. And in the race of faith that is our life, we fix our eyes on Jesus. For he is the longing of our hearts; he is the goal of our salvation.

All of this is another way of saying, “The Christian is one who longs for heaven” because Jesus is what makes heaven worth attaining. In comforting his fearful disciples Jesus said, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). At the heart of the glory of heaven is our unhindered, uninterrupted fellowship with Christ. This is how the Apostle Paul reasoned when he considered his potential death: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Death was gain for Paul because it meant more of Jesus, the very hope of heaven.

Preaching as an Exercise in Longing

How can we encourage our church members to long for heaven through our preaching ministries? This is a question of vital importance given the powerful role the pulpit plays in the life of the local church. Preachers have a tremendous opportunity to help steer hearts heavenward through Spirit empowered expositional preaching.

Helping our people long for heaven through our preaching requires preachers who long for heaven. In other words, his preaching will be marked by the “aroma” of eternal realities.

Is the fragrance of Christ in the air as we preach?

It will be if, as preachers, we are governed by the text of Scripture. For the Bible is first and foremost revelation of God—his character, conduct, and purposes. The Bible, after all, is about a kingdom not of this world. And it is our responsibility as preachers to bring our people into God’s world every Sunday.
Tragically, many preachers today need to hear the rebuke Jesus gave to Peter in Mark 8:33, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Peter was so earthly minded that he was in danger of missing heaven. When a church doesn’t long for heaven it is likely due to the fact that the preacher does not. The notes sounding forth from the pulpit are the pop songs of the world not the symphonies of God’s glory. If our preachers aren’t enamored with heaven, why would our churches be? If our preachers aren’t longing for Christ, why would our people be captivated by the glories to come?

Preachers must be men who live and preach in the tension of heaven and hell because we know people are ultimately either children of God or children of the devil; forgiven or condemned; saved or unsaved. Moreover, the Christian preacher believes all history is moving toward God’s appointed end: the day of Christ (cf., Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:6; 2:16). Preachers, therefore, do not shrink back from declaring the reality of hell nor assume the riches of heaven. We must strive to make these realities as concrete in our people’s thinking and feeling as the Bible makes them. These great truths animate our preaching and move us to proclaim not temporal, but eternal realities.

Toward a Longing Church

As Christians we long for Christ and our heavenly home. Part of the glory of the local church is the power of corporate longing—dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people gathered together determined to go Godward in their affections. The pulpit plays an indispensable role in building these kinds of churches. Therefore, may God be pleased to raise up an army of preachers who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

[image credit: trey ratcliff]

Filed under: Features, Preaching
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.