Then John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit, then, in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:7-9).
These are the first words of John the Baptizer in the Gospel of Luke.
I wonder how many preachers today might begin a sermon this way?
Matthew records these words as specifically addressed to the "Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his place of baptism" (Matt. 3:7). Even so, there is no "Thank you for coming!" or "How about this crazy weather?" or "I appreciate your interest in spiritual things."
Talk about efficient preaching! Hurting people's feelings with the Truth didn't seem to be one of his concerns. Too much was at stake.
He had a goal--get people ready to hear and receive Christ (Lk. 3:3-6). In his preaching he offended many. That fact alone would be enough for many local churches to dismiss such a preacher. If you're one to "Amen" that, consider another crucial point: the ones he offended were not the folks genuinely seeking God: "...the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John" (Lk. 7:30). Their rejection of the divine message proved they had no interest in God's purpose for their lives.
However, when genuine Truth seekers heard John's "hard preaching" they said, "'What then should we do?' John replied, 'Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?' 'Collect no more than you are authorized,' he answered. Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' 'Do not take money by force or false accusation,' he said. 'Be content with your wages.'" (Lk. 3:10-14). Maybe we should just start calling "hard preaching" "preaching the Truth."
Notice the result, rather than pooch their lips out and stomp away in a huff, these souls anxiously desired more details from God's Word. They weren't offended, but doubled down in their search! To them "hard preaching" was simply the Truth taught plainly and unvarnished.
"Not all medicine that does good tastes good, and not all preaching that profits is pleasant." --Dan Shipley
Most of us would agree in principle, I think, but when it comes time for personal application, we start to get squirmy--maybe even angry. You see this playing out many times in Scripture: "...He sent for Paul and listened to him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul expounded on righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, 'You may go for now. When I find the time, I will call for you'” (Acts 24:24-25). The next verse reveals Felix had ulterior motives in calling for Paul, so his response to "hard preaching" shouldn't come as a shock. He was willing to sit still for awhile (he even brought along his wife!), but when the preacher mentioned something he didn't like, the jig was up--he could no longer pretend to be a truth-seeker. "Time to go, honey, let's find another church."
Paul, John, and other faithful preachers could've truncated their message and avoided those subjects which hit a nerve with their audience. But doing so would compromise the Truth.
"For I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole will of God," and "I did not shrink back from declaring anything that was helpful to you as I taught you publicly and from house to house" (Acts. 20:20, 27). A preacher true to his calling must preach faith in Christ Jesus, and consider what preaching would "be helpful" to those of his immediate audience. Shouldn't the whole truth be taught? Absolutely. The point is simply that preaching aimed at other people in other places is not likely to have much effect locally. We want to put the salve where the sore is. Maybe what we call "hard preaching" is nothing more than just that!
This is what John the Baptizer did, he had specific revelations for the tax collector, for the the soldier, and for the wealthy. He didn't hesitate to tell them God's will for their lives. He refused to be intimidated by those "offended" when he preached on "volatile issues." Like Jesus, he aimed at the hearts of men, and tailored his message to their needs.
Paul did the same. When in Antioch he called out Peter's hypocrisy--"I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned" (Gal. 2:11). I'm sure that was neither pleasant nor comfortable, but it needed to be done.
Stephen also unapologetically taught the Truth of Christ, and it cost him his life, yet he did not shrink from rebuking those who "resist the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51-53).
No true preacher of the Gospel will ever relish such opportunities: "For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you" (2 Cor. 2:4). Yet it must be done. Those who follow Jesus impart Truth to a lost and dying world, knowing they risk relationships, popularity, livelihoods, and even their lives. Sorrow will come to both messenger and recipient (2 Cor. 7:8), but Truth heals all wounds, including those which Truth makes. We only need to submit to its power, and we will find Christ's promised blessings (Eph. 1:3).