A Brief History of the Development of the Sermon
By David Packer, D. Min
When any Christian today uses the term “sermon” we can be sure that he has an idea behind the word, most likely referring to the type of sermons in the worship services that he had heard growing up. The sermon is normally attached to a larger worship experience and though it certainly can stand alone, and often does, it is inseparably linked in its development to the historical development of the regular worship of God’s people.
In the Old Testament tabernacle and temple worship, preaching was not ordinarily part of the experience. The worship consisted of sacrifices, rituals, prayers, and sometimes singing, as well as the reading of the Word of God, but there appears no tradition in the Old Testament temple worship of a sermon being a regular part. Sermons were for special times, such as when Ezra stood on a high platform especially built for the occasion praised God and read the book of the Moses. There were with him certain scribes that explained the meaning of the words to the people, “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Ezra 8:8). There is no reason for us to suppose that this did not happen elsewhere as well, that some faithful Levites during Israel’s history taught to common people the interpretation of the Law of Moses, but it certainly does not appear to have been commonly or regularly done.
The development of prophecy took a different track. Prophecy pre-dated the Mosaic Covenant, and we find it from the earliest days of salvation history – Genesis 4:26; Enoch (Jude 14) and Noah (2 Peter 2:5). The idea of biblical prophecy is that a man moved by the Spirit would speak a message from God for people to hear and consider: “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The prophetic message was essentially a call from the eternal God through a human being for people to turn to Him in faith. Though they addressed current issues for their day, the essence of prophecy always retained this timeless trait. The Old Testament prophets particularly reminded the Israelites of the covenant promises God had given them and called them to repent and return to God. Judgments, warnings, promises, hope – all of these were part of prophecies.
From an early day, prophetic preaching was accompanied by some type of music and dancing, it appears from the experience of Saul and the prophets.
As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them and they will be prophesying. 1 Samuel 10:5
Later on we read of Samuel being the leader of a group of prophets (1 Samuel 19:20), and historically it appears that training people to proclaim the message of God has its roots in Samuel. We certainly hear of nothing exactly like this before his time. There was a high degree of spontaneity also associated with prophecy in the days of Samuel, though clearly later many of the writings of the prophets required thought and effort to prepare – not all prophecy in any age was spontaneous.
But the act of prophesying or preaching was not initially connected to the temple worship experience. The prophets seemed to speak mostly at special events, like when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18:19 ff) or when Jeremiah stood at the temple gate and proclaimed a message from God (Jeremiah 7:2 ff). Explanation was given in the homes (Deut 6:7-9), and the truth was proclaimed through writing, but not in the normal temple worship. The closest thing to a sermon in the temple were the psalms that were read and the public prayers, which were often instructive in and of themselves, but prophesy itself belonged more to hillsides, private meetings, and public squares.
This began to change after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., as the Israelites were dispersed and the synagogue came to be. Prior to the Exile, groups of prophets gathered together to proclaim the truth to one another, and there, we presume, the sermon began to be molded. The synagogue was similar to this, an assembly of believing Israelites who came together to worship. With the destruction of the temple, and the dispersal of the people from Palestine, a hunger developed in them for the things of God. It was during this time that the people of Israel began to value the Old Testament and treasure its truths, its history, and its prophets. The value of the written Word of God and practical preaching based on it is seen here.
In the exile, Jews apparently assembled where they could to pray and to listen to their teachers and prophets (Ezek. 8:1; 14:1; 33:30 f). We may assume that such assemblies continued, since it is inconceivable that Jews of the Diaspora could have remained Jews without some form of public worship. Even in Palestine there were adherents of the Jewish community too far from Jerusalem to participate regularly in its cult, whose needs would have been similar. We may suppose that as the law gained canonical status, groups began to assemble locally to hear it expounded. Gradually organized synagogues sprang up with regular worship on the Sabbath, the heart of which was the reading and the exposition of the law. 1
The form of synagogue worship developed in the Jewish Diaspora gave birth to the format for Christian worship as well as to the idea of the sermon. The order of worship in the synagogues by the time of Christ was fairly well developed and predictable. They began with repeating the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4,5, then expressions of praise to God, followed by a reading of the Old Testament. They had organized the readings systematically so as to read through the Pentateuch regularly. Then the sermon followed, a simple explanation of the meaning and application of the text that was read, depending on the ability and training of the one speaking. Merrill Unger pointed out,
The peculiarity here is that just for the acts proper to public worship – the reading of the Scriptures, preaching and prayer – no special officials were appointed. These acts were, on the contrary, in the time of Christ still freely performed in turn by members of the congregation. 2
The sermon closed with a blessing, if someone from the Levitical class was present, or a common prayer, if not. So the sermon was based on the idea that the average member of the synagogue could say something helpful and meaningful to his fellow worshipers about the word of God.
This then was the first understanding of what a sermon was – it was the explanation and application of a certain passage of Scripture to common people. The sermon, then, during the Diaspora had five distinct characteristics which it has basically retained: (1) it was shared in a worship service; (2) it was based on a certain passage of the Word of God; (3) it was a practical application of the text; (4) the sermon was not considered on the same level of inspiration as the Scripture, and (5) it was done for the benefit of the common believer. When Jesus commissioned His disciples saying, “Teaching them to obey all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” it particularly held an image similar to the synagogue experience, where the question, “How to obey?” was regularly asked and answered.
In the gospels and Acts, just like in the Old Testament, the sermons recorded are mostly preached in the hillside, on the streets and city squares, and for the opportune moment. This is true for John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles. We also see the pattern of Christian proclamation happening in homes and in synagogues. The Jewish emphasis in teaching had been upon knowing the right answer, not upon an oratorical skillful presentation. Of Paul it was said, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Cor. 10:10), and he himself admitted as much: “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God … my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor. 2:1-4).3
Yet into the Greek and Roman cultures the gospel came, and the Greeks and Romans did place a high value on oratory. Aristotle, Demosthenes, and many others taught and trained on the subject and as the church spread among the Gentiles, the sermon began to take on the elements of oratory that aided and did not conflict with proclaiming the gospel. The gospel of Christ required preaching that was very different from what the Mosaic Covenant required. The Mosaic Law, being mostly a code of ethical behavior, begged the question of how something should be understood and obeyed today, but the gospel of Christ proclaimed a message of grace and did not only prescribe certain actions. So the sermon had to take on a different shape.
In this environment it should be no surprise that we find the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:11 describing pastors-teachers – the original language shows that he had one position in mind, not two – one position that joined these two traits in one person. The pastor would guide and direct his people (or really God’s people) and the teacher would instruct them on how to stand on their own when they were away from him. It is worth mentioning the significance of this Ephesians passage, for it linked the role of the pastor and the act of teaching to the call of the prophet and the apostle. We basically expect preachers to be called of God for the task. Several other passages in the New Testament emphasize the importance of the work of preaching and teaching of those who will lead the churches (for examples, 1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9; Heb 13:7; James 3:1).
Coupled with the example of the synagogue and the New Testament teachings of the abiding presence of the Spirit in each believer’s life, the New Testament never strictly forbade lay teaching or preaching. In fact, some passages strongly encouraged it – possibly because some false teachers claimed special anointing and authority over others. 1 John 2:27 says, “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” To the church at Corinth, which seemed to have more problems with unruliness than most churches, Paul wrote, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (1 Cor. 14:31). So the lay people were also rightfully involved in the proclamation ministry, and in that light, the sermon was often a dialogue between the speaker and the people – a tradition that is still upheld in many African-American churches in the USA.4
Peter wrote, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” or “oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), and this is a significant apostolic command to understand New Testament preaching. The Greek word is logion, a derivative of logos, and it was used to refer to the written Word of God (Acts 7:38, Romans 3:2, Hebrews 5:12). This should not be interpreted to suggest that the preacher’s words would ever be equal to God’s written Word – the command has the concept of “as if” – rather that the sermon must retain the essence of the whole of Scripture in message, character, and goal. The sermon, then, cannot be a collection of the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of the preacher himself – precisely the opposite – a sermon is to be the clearest representation of the mind of God on the subject, as it is revealed in the Scripture, that the preacher can muster. This is precisely the same thought that Paul expressed, that they were stewards of the mysteries of God and must be faithful to the message (1 Cor. 4:1-2). He also wrote that the preacher should be “a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” and avoids “godless chatter” (2 Timothy 2:15-16).
Sermons as we know them today rarely seemed to show up in churches the New Testament era, but sometimes, perhaps, they did. More often the message that was delivered covered many different thoughts and subjects and did not take just one specific direction. There was a wonderful practical nature to the messages, and they were fresh from people’s hearts and experiences. The synagogue example provided for a message based on Scripture, and the apostolic teaching encouraged it as well. A worship experience, in fact, may have had several speakers who shared with some spontaneity on various biblical passages. At other times the church was gathered to be read the letters from the apostles. And some skilled orators like Apollos would have brought the Greek and Roman traditions of oratory into whatever situations they addressed. Yet the simplicity of preaching and the emphasis on the power of the Spirit, in contrast to the persuasion of people, was clearly the focus.
Origen: A significant development in the sermon came in the early church through Origen, born in Alexandria, Egypt in 185 A.D. At sixteen years of age he planned to go out and join his father in martyrdom, but his mother hid all his clothes and prevented him from leaving the house. He became a popular preacher and teacher, serving in both Alexandria and Palestine. In those days the allegorical interpretation of Scripture was popular – it has since been largely discredited – but Origen, like all men, was a man of his own time and many of his sermons handed down to us show the typical allegorical misuse of Scripture.
Three contributions to the development of the sermon are traced back to Origen. (1) He returned the sermon to the pattern of the synagogue, as “a discourse on a specific biblical text, where that text should be explained and applied.” The sermon had been all over the map, biblically speaking, for several generations.5 (2) He also laid great emphasis to “the importance of careful exegesis of the historical and grammatical significance of the sermon text.”6 (3) He also established the form of the simple homily, one where the phrases in the scripture passage itself determined the order of his comments in the sermon. This was a simple exposition of the biblical text. 7
In the history of the Western Church, there came a time in history when the pulpit came to be less emphasized and the sacraments more so. The pastor-teacher became the priest and worship came to be more about the Eucharist than the proclamation of the truth of God. Preaching never did disappear entirely, but in many situations it became less important to the worship experience. The temple with its pomp and ceremony was chosen over the tabernacle with its practical applications and homilies on the Word of God, and for hundreds of years the sermon was deemed less and less important.
In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, the sermon was rediscovered, and often, just like in the Old Testament, it was back out on the hillsides, in marketplaces, and anywhere people would gather to hear a proclamation of the truth. In these years the Catholic churches remained skeptical to the idea of a biblically based sermon, sometimes completely closed to the idea. So in the days of John Wycliffe in England (1324-1384) and then John Huss in Bohemia (1371-1425) the gospel was proclaimed outside of the church and the sermons took on a particularly polemic tone, emphasizing the doctrinal points that confronted the Catholic heresies. This trend continued among the Reformers, though not exclusively. Certainly both priests and reformers preached about practical devotional topics – such as grief, worry, temptation, peace, etc.
Pietism: The post Reformation Protestant churches inherited congregations of biblically illiterate people, so the preaching adapted to carry a strong doctrinal weight. The sermon in many cases came to be a discourse that often unkindly emphasized how wrong the opposition was, rather than to emphasize the grace and love of God. Into this problem Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) was born and began his ministry. Spener, a German Lutheran pastor, advocated for a different kind of sermon, a different style of preaching. Rather than a rhetoric that attacked the opposition, he advocated a preaching that would implant Christianity in the inner person, the soul of which is faith, and its effects in terms of spiritual fruit born through the life.8
The result was a kind of preaching began to develop that emphasized the transformation of the heart and not only the doctrinal truths surrounding salvation. Under this influence the pulpits became kinder and the sermon sought to lead the hearers into faith, not into biasness against a different group. And this was just one of many other influences. Today’s preachers learn in school how to take a text, to exegete it properly, and understanding the needs of the congregation and heeding the leadership of the Spirit, develop a thematic presentation of the meaning and application of the word of God just for that occasion.
Numerous other influences have shaped the sermon, too many to mention them all. Depending on the circumstance, the Christian denomination, the preferred style of worship, the basic cultural background of the church members, and countless other issues, the sermon takes a certain shape. Theological Liberalism introduced a “sermon” that is moralizing and only loosely grounded in the Word at all. Theological Conservatism responded with a sermon that was polemic and defensive, sometimes characterized again by unkindness in its tone. American 20th Century evangelism introduced the altar call or public invitation, which led the sermon toward a climax of decision. Modern media has made the sermon a more polished presentation. Scholasticism, psychology, nationalism, fundamentalism, and other “isms” have had their influence.
Each specific culture into which the gospel has come, has influenced the sermon to some degree, whether small or great, helping to shape it into the style of oratory or public speaking most often associated with that culture. For example, the relative emotiveness of individual cultures is normally reflected in the delivery of the sermon. The length of the average sermon also reflects the local culture. For example, sermons in 17th Century Puritan New England often lasted two hours, whereas today in the same places, they are around thirty minutes, even in strongly conservative churches.
Where the ancient Greeks emphasized oratory, today we have become experts in “communication,” and preaching has taken on this new sophistication. In some settings the sermon is augmented by drama, special music, power point, mass media, etc., conjuring up the memory of the prophets in Samuel’s day who combined music with prophecy. It is sometimes even difficult today to identify exactly when the sermon began and when it ended and who even delivered it, since it was so connected to the other aspects of the worship service. But most sermons of today do not incorporate the musical and multi-media creativity of Samuel, but retain the basic simple shape that was introduced by Origen 1,800 years ago, and that stood on the shoulders of the simple synagogue experience. The essence of the sermon retains the timeless mark of prophecy: a messenger from the eternal God calls people to repentance and faith in Him.
1. John Bright, A History of Israel, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) 1974, p. 439.
2. Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody) 1957, p. 1053.
3. It is not unreasonable to assume that Paul had oratorical skills and training that he had not used in Corinth, especially since he was raised in a Greek-speaking environment. In fact, it is very possible that, since he came to Corinth following his relatively ineffective sermon on Mars Hills about “The Unknown God,” he intentionally avoided an attempt at impressive oratory there and focused instead on plain, simple speaking, so that their faith “might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:5).
4. Stephen and Philip were effective lay preachers, Acts 6:8-10 and Acts 8:4-6
5. Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume One (Waco, Texas: Word Books) 1971, p. 32.
7. Ibid. p. 36