Jesus preached his last public sermon on or about Tuesday, March 31, AD 33.
The message, found in Matthew 23:1–39, warns against hypocrisy—especially of proud preachers who “preach, but do not practice.” On Friday, April 3, history’s greatest preacher was executed outside Jerusalem in history’s most extraordinary display of humility.
Three days separated his last sermon from his last breath.
Every pastor will preach his last sermon—but unlike Jesus, most of them won’t know it. Here are a few examples from history.
John Calvin led world-changing reforms and wrote commentaries on 48 books of the Bible. J. I. Packer called his Institutes “one of the wonders of the literary world.” Through it all, Calvin maintained an incomprehensible preaching schedule: twice on Sunday and several times during the week for a total of “10 new sermons every 14 days.”
But on February 6, 1564, the toll on his body was clear to all as he was carried to church in a chair. Theodore Beza reported that Calvin preached with “asthma impeding his utterance” (understood as a fit of coughing that filled his mouth with blood). In physical pain and weakness, the reformer preached his last sermon.
I’ve found no record of Calvin’s text that day, but on his deathbed, he completed his commentary on Joshua. In the introduction, he observes that God raises up gifted leaders for his church and then takes them away, but “he has others in readiness to supply their place . . . his mighty power is not tied down to them, but he is able, as often as seems to him good, to find fit successors.”
Days later, John Calvin died at age 54 on May 27, 1564. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Calvin’s work influenced John Flavel, who preached for 41 years in circumstances most American pastors would consider intolerable. Educated at Oxford, he was renowned for expositing Scripture and preaching to the heart. But under King Charles II, the state dictated what England’s churches could preach, how they could worship, and whether they could meet.
As a dissenting pastor, Flavel was excommunicated from his church and forbidden to come within five miles of it. He preached illegally for years—in his own home, in the homes of others, or in the woods late at night, caring for the flock entrusted to his care. Along the way, he managed to publish enough works to fill six large volumes that would deeply influence later generations of preachers, including Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
On June 21, 1691, Flavel visited Exeter and preached on 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Five days later, he died of a stroke at age 64.
Flavel profoundly influenced Jonathan Edwards, “the most brilliant of all American theologians.” While 17 of Edwards’s sermons were published in his lifetime, many more have been published since. His works now fill 26 volumes published by Yale University Press. Edwards has the distinction of delivering America’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
His farewell sermon at Stockbridge, Massachusetts—on January 15, 1758—is his last recorded sermon in the Yale collection. Edwards’s text that day was Luke 21:36. The extant notes are slim but they’re vintage Edwards, holding forth law and gospel. He admonished his congregation that everyone will appear before Christ in judgment and “many dreadful things are coming,” but there’s a way to “escape those things that shall come.”
Two months later, after an unsuccessful smallpox inoculation, Edwards died in Princeton on March 22, 1758, at age 54.
Historian Mark Noll considers the British-born George Whitefield “the best-known American until George Washington.” He often preached outside because no building could hold the crowds he drew. In his lifetime, he preached to over 10 million people on two continents through over 18,000 sermons.
On September 29, 1770, he preached outside for two hours to an audience of 6,000 in Exeter, New Hampshire. He summarized the sermon: “Works! Works! A man get to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.”
He wearily went to bed that night and died in his sleep at age 55.
As history’s most widely read preacher, Spurgeon is probably quoted more than any other pastor—25 million words of his sermons are available in 63 printed volumes.
The London pastor’s life was marked by suffering, opposition, loss, depression, and physical pain. “Imagine placing your foot in a vice,” he said, describing his gout, “and tightening the vice as far as it will go.” Yet Sunday after Sunday, he stood and delivered.
The London pastor’s life was marked by suffering. Yet Sunday after Sunday, he stood and delivered.
On June 7, 1891, a sick Spurgeon preached what would be his last sermon, on 1 Samuel 30:21–26. Surely the congregation benefited from what he’d learned through lifelong suffering:
You Little-Faiths, you Despondencies, you Much-Afraids, you Feeble-Minds, you that sigh more than you sing, you that would but cannot, you that have a great heart for holiness, but feel beaten back in your struggles, the Lord shall give you his love, his grace, his favor, as surely as he gives it to those who can do great things in his name.
On January 31, 1892, while recovering in the warmth of southern France, Spurgeon died from gout and kidney failure at age 57.
At a time when most London churches were declining, Westminster Chapel grew under the leadership of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. From the start of World War II, his ministry continued there for 30 years. Considered one of the 20th century’s most influential preachers, he championed expository preaching, which he defined as “logic on fire.”
Lloyd-Jones spent his final days preaching throughout the United Kingdom. On May 18, 1980, he preached on Psalm 2 in Aberystwyth, Wales. (He’d preached the text on several occasions; one can be heard online.) Though weakened by the cancer that would kill him, he preached his last sermon on June 8, 1980 in Barcombe, England, on Joshua 4:6. On July 26, he told Iain Murray, “People say to me it must be very trying for you not to be able to preach––No! Not at all! I was not living upon preaching.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones died on March 1, 1981, at age 81.
4 Lessons from Last Sermons
1. Every pastor will preach one.
It probably won’t be his best sermon, and it may not be a great sermon. But by God’s grace, the last one should be a good one. There’s much to say about what makes a good sermon, but two marks from 2 Timothy 2:15 are fundamental: character and competence.
It may not be a great sermon. But by God’s grace, the last one should be a good one.
Regarding character, the preacher humbly presents himself to God and practices what he preaches. He is qualified as Christ’s ambassador—“above reproach” according to the standards of 1 Timothy 3. (Sadly, the above examples didn’t all fit this description in their public lives.) Regarding competence, the preacher rightly handles the Word. Having done the hard exegetical work, he skillfully exposits the biblical text so that it’s clear what it means and how listeners should respond.
2. Every pastor will preach his last sermon with incomplete sanctification.
All pastors are deeply flawed with blind spots—and in the men discussed here, you can find many. Between his last sermon and his last breath, Calvin confessed, “I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly.”
This resonates with most pastors as they near the finish line.
3. Every pastor can make his last sermon a good sermon.
The world rejoices over high-profile pastors who don’t finish well. To avoid a shipwreck, we must (among other things) make our last sermon a good sermon. And since we’ll probably preach our last sermon without knowing it, all our sermons must be good sermons.
If we can’t preach good sermons, we shouldn’t be preaching at all.
4. Every pastor needs providential adversity.
Some pastors will draw large audiences and, in Spurgeon’s words, “do great things in his name.” But most will faithfully labor in obscurity and be forgotten within a generation.
Still, any measurable success will come with the constant temptation to nurse the kind of pride Jesus’s last sermon condemns. Therefore, God may kindly mix adversity with success “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
By this humbling mercy, he prepares us for our last sermon.