Have you ever thought about what style of preaching that you listen to? Is it the same style of sermon that was preached in the New Testament church?

I am currently in an intensive personal study of the book of Acts where the first examples of preaching are found. As Professor of Rhetoric, I have been examining these sermons closely to identify the different styles of rhetoric presented by each speaker.

These sermons were preached by: 1) Peter: at Pentecost, in the Temple, to the Sanhedrin, Gentiles and to the church and council in Jerusalem;  2) Stephen: to the Sanhedrin and 3) Paul: Synagogue at Antioch, with Barnabas in Iconium, with Silas in Prison, in Athens at the Areopagus, Ephesus, Jerusalem, to the Sanhedrin, before Felix in Caesarea, to King Agrippa and to the Jewish leaders at Rome.

These sermons, as well as the books of the New Testament, were written in Greek by and for speakers of Greek, many of whom were familiar with public address in Greek and featured classical rhetoric with Jewish traditions modified by beliefs and values of Christianity.

What is a sermon?

The word “sermon” is not even found in the original text of scripture. It comes from a Middle English word (derived from Old French) meaning “discourse”. A sermon is a religious discourse, written or spoken to address a religious or moral matter (Webster’s). In our English translations of the original Greek and Hebrew text of scripture, we see “Sermon” in the title of a passage—Sermon on the Mount, e.g.—but not in the scripture.

We find the word “preach” (kêrusso) commonly throughout the New Testament. To preach means to “proclaim”, as in a herald, and as in the gospel (euangelion), or “good news” (Classical Rhetoric 146).

Why do we listen to sermons or Classical Rhetoric? I like George A. Kennedy’s answer: “Scriptural truth must be apprehended by the listener, not proved by the speaker” (146). As in the early Church, Christian faith (pistis) came from hearing speech; pistis included trust, belief and persuasion. Aristotle also used pistis for proof in rhetoric and this became standard among speakers of this time.  

What is the narrative of The Book of Acts?

Now, back to the study of rhetoric in the Book of Acts. The narrative of the sermons in Acts is a mixture of rhetorical and biographical. These sermons were viewed in public spaces which normally held the pagan rhetorical narratives of the times (think Homeric). In addition to this new style of rhetorical homilies, miracles are performed by Peter and Paul in Acts 10 by Peter and Paul in Acts 14 and benevolent actions are being introduced to this pagan crowd as the Church of Antioch is taking up offerings for famine relief in the Judaean community.

Many New Testament scholars believe that Acts was influenced by the conventions of Greek historiography. According to Kennedy, these sermons are not classical orations but are Jewish rhetorical traditions as those developing in early Christianity (148). Most are known as “missionary sermons”, the Christian counterpart of the Jewish covenant speech.

For example, Stephen’s speech is similar in structure to Old Testament rhetoric and is possibly from a Jewish homily and is an analogue to Socrates’ apology, written almost 400 years prior. Stephen got a chance to speak in the Synagogue as there was no one to preach the sermon. He took a panoramic view of Jewish history to remind the members of the Synagogue that through the ages, they had persecuted their prophets and had abandoned the very leaders that God had raised up—even as the “chosen people”, they took the life of God’s only Son.

As seen in Peter’s sermons, the rhetorical elements are of authority, prophecy and fulfillment, and warnings of the future. It took great courage for Peter, a Galilean fisherman and an untrained orator, to stand in front of a court audience of the wealthiest, the most intellectual and the most powerful in the land. This courage, I believe, came from the knowledge that this court had condemned his Lord, Jesus, to death, and his was not daunted!

In Paul’s sermons, he rehearses Jewish history and the prophecy of the coming savior. He ends with a warning to those who do not believe. The most famous of Paul’s sermons is at the Athenian Areopagus, “Mars’ Hill”(Acts 17:22-31). Paul has adapted his message to “Greek ears”. Paul does not attempt the dialectical reasoning of a Greek orator or philosopher: he proclaims the Gospel, but with a Greek quotation, “As even some of your poets have said…”. As these Greeks were listening to Paul’s message of the resurrection of Jesus, they were reminded of the dark underworld and return of Homer’s Odysseus, of Theseus, Heracles, and Orpheus as well as Stoicism, which was the leading philosophical movement of this period (149).

Where did Paul learn rhetoric? Rhetorical schools in the Hellenized cities of the East where Paul grew up, were common and he probably attended one as a young man. Paul quotes Greek poets in his sermons and used many rhetorical conventions of speeches which are found in the oral teachings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates. Greek letter writing was also taught in these schools and, as we see in many of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, there are the conventional rhetorical structures of narration, an exordium, proposition, proof and epilogue.

Paul had many reasons to be proud and puffed up as his rival Apollos. However, even as an astute erudite, Paul showed much humility. He never took the glory himself, but always accredited his gifts and knowledge to God: “And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not plausible [peithois] words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith [pistis] might not rest in the wisdom of me, but in the power of God” (I Cor 2:1-4).

Paul rejects classical rhetoric and worldly philosophy and teaches that Christians can only rely on God, the higher philosophy. Up to this time, the view held by Saint Augustine and many other Christian exegetes was that God had deliberately concealed wisdom to keep it from those who were indifferent to it but would allow those who sought the truth to find a road to understanding (149).

Preaching styles in Acts

In the early church, we find four major rhetorical forms of preaching: the missionary sermon, prophetic preaching, the homily, and the panegyrical sermon (148-149). In the book of Acts, we see examples of the missionary sermon aimed at conversion of non-Christians to the new faith.

We also see prophecy, the second form, in Acts 11:27 when Agabus stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. In these prophetical sermons, the language is often biblical, there is no clear outline or structure, there is an exhortation to the Christian life but little theological emphasis. There is also a repeated call for repentance.

The third form of preaching we find in Scripture, homiletics, is considered by Kennedy to be the most important form of Christian preaching (in 1999!). Homilia is a Greek word meaning “coming together, conversation”, or an informal address (156). It is closely related to the history of hermeneutics, the science and method of exegesis or interpretation of texts.

Looking at the sermons of the New Testament from a Biblical Scholar’s point of view, William Barclay, my go-to-guy, categorizes the four different kinds of preaching in the Book of Acts as :

  • Kerugma: “a herald’s announcement” or the plain statement of facts of the Christian message. This is the most common sermon in the Book of Acts as most had never heard the proclamation of the gospel before,
  • Didache: teaching and elucidated meanings, the significances, of the facts which have been proclaimed. Barclay states that this style is the answer to the question “So what”?
  • Paraklesis: or exhortation;this kind of preaching urged upon men the duty and obligation of fitting their lives to match the kerugma and the didache which had just been given; and
  • Homolia: as illustrated by Kennedy, the treatment of any subject in light of the Christian message.

Rhetoric of Sermons Today

What type of sermons does your Pastor preach?

I have had the privilege to sit under all forms of preaching throughout my Christian walk of 50 years. In my home church, First Baptist Dallas, I came to know Jesus Christ as my Savior at age 14 under the powerful missional, expository preaching of W. A Criswell. His sermons helped disciple me as a young Christian on my new faith journey. I saw Jesus for the first time as my Rock, my Fortress, my Help in times of trouble, my Constant! Dr. Criswell, who was in ministry for 75 years, says about his calling to preach: “To lift Him up, to preach His name, and to invite souls to love Him and to follow Him is the highest, heavenliness privilege of human life”.

My husband David, a Pastor of 40 years, combines the styles of homiletics and exposition. He tells his congregation what we need to know to understand the text and apply it to our lives. His narratives bring the stories from the Scriptures to life! His sermons are compelling and soul arousing for all who yearn to know the will and good pleasure of our Lord. His exegesis is culturally concerned. As in the Book of Acts, David says that “local preaching is the most effective. If you know your audience and they know you, there is a greater chance of connection”. In this morning’s sermon “That You May Know”, David exposited through rhetoric on our Salvation, using the scripture from I John 5:11-15: “In the physical realm, breathing means life; in the Spiritual life, believing means life. Much like we breathe to be physically alive, we must believe to be Spiritually alive”. David’s sermons have led me to a deeper understanding of faith, of living FOR Jesus, of Loving others, of Forgiveness, of Grace, and of Hope.

My Son-in-Law Jordan, a PhD student in Biblical History and a Professor of Christian Studies, uses a combination of all forms. He reads scripture in a more literal way as a historian and uses exegesis in his study of the text which brings the exposition in the presentation of the text through his sermon. He is a narrative preacher. Jordan stated that the more common classification for sermons today is through narration, topic, exposition, and exegesis which is the process of tearing apart a small section of verse or a few verses, looking at the etymology in Greek, examining sentence structure and deep context. This style was first used by Origen (184-254 AD), who abandoned the simple homily’s casual structure to examine the complexity of analysis of a text. Origen would divide sermons into three levels: corporeal (literal), moral, and theological (158). Jordan’s sermons have inspired me to dig deep into scripture; to look more intently into: the History, the Covenants, the Inspired vessels whom God used to reach the world, the original meaning of the etymology through the languages of Greek and Hebrew, and how the younger generations understand and follow God.

Through this study, I have been challenged and encouraged to look at sermons in Scripture and through modern day preaching in a different way: both rhetorically and systematically.

Works Cited

Barclay, William. (1953). The Daily Study Bible, The Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia:  

   Westminster Press.

Kennedy, George A. (1999). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition. London:

     UNC Press.