True New Testament Preaching

19 Sep

Is it possible that what the New Testament means by preaching is not quite the same phenomenon that goes by the name “preaching” today? Consider simply the length of Christian sermons. The sacred scriptures of the New Testament record four verbatim sermons given by St. Peter and St. Paul. The lengths of these truly biblical models of Christian sermons, calculated in the number of words in the Greek text, are as follows:

Acts 2:14b-36, 441 words
Acts 3:12b-26, 297 words
Acts 10:34b-43, 181 words
Acts 17:22b-31, 193 words

You can see that the longest of these apostolic sermons, the sermon that St. Peter delivered on the day of Pentecost, consists of 441 words total. An equivalent English text (in this case the NRSV) has 508 words. In case you’re wondering how this works out in minutes and seconds, you’ll be very pleased to know that I have accurately and scientifically timed the Greek text of Acts 2:14b-36, reading at a moderate pace and utilizing a Timex Ironman Triathlon sports watch, and the total duration of the sermon given by the holy Apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost—the longest recorded in the New Testament—comes out to six minutes and fifteen seconds.

This raises a basic question. Why would modern preachers depart so flagrantly from the apostolic pattern of preaching given in the holy scriptures of the New Testament? Do they somehow imagine that they have more wisdom to impart than the apostles of Jesus Christ? Do they imagine that their modern hearers are more apt to tolerate a longer sermon than people in the first Christian century? Surely the wickedest excuse for longer sermons is the rationale that says that the sermons recorded in the New Testament were only summaries of the early Christians’ preaching, some like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the apostolic preaching. But there’s nothing in the New Testament texts or in the ancient contexts to suggest that. I think it’s more likely a case where our contemporary practice of preaching and hearing 15-20 minute (or longer) sermons is such an established fact that we suppose that the New Testament must be corrected. Our practice becomes the norm by which the holy scriptures are judged.

One of the problems is that, despite the apostolic examples, our congregations are so accustomed to hearing non-apostolic (15-20 minute) sermons that they would probably take it as a violation of contract for a preacher to preach sermons of the apostolic length. I can imagine the chair of a Pulpit Committee or Pastor-Parish Relations Committee delivering the bad news to such a hapless preacher: “We’re sorry to inform you, but there is simply a degree of pain that we expect our preachers to inflict upon us, and you have failed to deliver this. We cannot tolerate this behavior and consequently we have no choice but to look for another preacher in your place.” Or, ask the Bishop for another preacher in your place.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Ted Campbell


12 responses to “True New Testament Preaching

  1. robertlukenbill

    September 19, 2011 at 7:12 am

    I know many will not like to hear this, but the lack of True New Testament Preaching (not just length, but content) is the main cause to religious error today (i.e., denominations and such). If preachers were to accept the New Testament Pattern (2 Timothy 1:13) and to preach only this pattern (2 Timothy 4:1-4) then we would only have one church in the world today. Because Satan has taken our pulpits in many religious organizations we see a departure from the truth which was taught and defended (Jude 3) in the first century. How do we get back to the true New Testament Church? We give up our man-made creeds, doctrines and our ideological sermons with children’s church to boot and only preach/practice what we find in the New Testament. I am willing, but are you?

    • itsmebill

      November 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      Right on target, Robert.

  2. jaltman81

    September 19, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Isn’t it also possible that the NT “sermons” are more or less “Sermon outlines”?

  3. Brian Miller

    September 19, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I like where this is going. Can we not say the same thing about New Testament ordination or understanding of Sacraments?

  4. Mike Lindstrom

    September 19, 2011 at 10:04 am

    How modern is modern? Seems to me this is not new. That is not to say that your point is not valid, I just think the issue has been around much longer than the “modern” age. Since you only go back to the New Testament examples it is hard to determine just where things changed, and why.

    Having said that, your post does make me wonder if we have replaced relationships with knowledge. The sermons of the New Testament are given by those who are living in community with other believers in a much closer context than our modern day churches. Discipleship happened on a daily basis among the believers (based on the account given in Acts chapter 2). Today we come together for a couple of hours, one of which is worship. People want to be taught, they want to gain knowledge as a way of being faithful. I’m just not sure it is doing the job of making disciples.

    I also base this idea on the fact that people have made comments about a preacher who did not preach long enough sermons. It seems that having heard a “good” sermon and having gained knowledge of the truth, people leave feeling faithful. But, as I saw first hand recently, if you call for people to gather for a meal to celebrate and hear testimony about the mission and ministry happening in and through the church and only about 35% show up. The relational aspect of our faith seems to have diminished, while the quest for knowledge has become more prevalent. Gaining knowledge is much safer and easier than maintaining and developing relationships. I just wonder if there is a correlation – and until this moment I had not given it much thought, so thank you.

  5. Kurt Boemler

    September 19, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount consists of 2,416 words total in the Common English Bible (NRSV? Get with the times!). I too have accurately and scientifically timed the English text (I’m not very good at Greek, but I have that good Midwest accent and cadence that’s good for television news anchors) of Matthew 5.3 – 7.27, reading at a moderate pace and utilizing a my Android Phone Stopwatch app, and the total duration of the sermon given by Jesus—the actual longest recorded in the New Testament—comes out to twelve minutes and fifty three seconds.

  6. quentinfhl

    March 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    How long would the sermon on the mount have been? Maybe that magic 15 min. I don’t think that it takes me that long to read the 3 chapters of Matthew.

  7. Joe Everett

    April 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Acts 20:9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. (Act 20:9 NIV)

    – apparently they weren’t all so short

  8. Ted Campbell

    April 18, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Total bummer. Yes, it looks like the sermons to non-Christian audiences (the four mentioned in my article) were remarkably short. So I can see why people were attracted to Christianity: “Short sermons!” Cool Religion!” Then they get in and they’re subjected to these endless in-house sermons described in Acts 9. One would have thought they would have learned a lesson about long sermons just from that episode and heeded this solemn biblical warning.

  9. Joe Everett

    April 19, 2012 at 6:29 am

    Thank you professor but my point was that we really don’t know what the typical NT sermon length was.

    • robertlukenbill

      April 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

      It seems Paul was trained in Greek Rhetoric and Oratory, so to study those models which are outside the Bible’s teaching we might learn a little about the standard length of a sermon. One good source would be Ben Whitaker’s commentary on 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Just a thought.


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