1. What is the main purpose of my sermon?
In a book of interest to preachers, Phillip Collins writes:
“All speeches can be divided into at least one of the three functions:
1. Information: a speech whose principal function is to leave an audience better informed than they were before you began.
2. Persuasion: a speech whose principal function is to persuade an audience of a case that, before you began, had either never occurred to them or to which they had been actively hostile.
3. Inspiration: a speech whose principal function is to inspire the audience to do something that they had previously not considered doing or had been refusing to do or, occasionally, to carry on doing something.”
(Philip Collins was a former speechwriter for Tony Blair: The Art of Speeches and Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say, 2012)
I ask the preachers I mentor to examine what proportion of their sermons are devoted to these three functions. In my opinion, most evangelical preachers are weak on persuasion, even weaker on inspiration, yet strong on information! Interestingly, Collins suggests that while all speeches should have more than one function, persuasion should be dominant!
2. Have I fully understood the passage from which I am preaching?
This involves the spadework of studying words and phrases along with the cultural background and context. Exegetical commentaries can aid us here. Check how different English versions translate the passage from which you are preaching, ranging from those at the “formal equivalent” end of the scale, to the “functional equivalent”, and those in between.
The test of whether you clearly understand any passage is that you can explain it to your hearers in accessible language.
3. What is the big idea of my sermon?
Philip Collins asks: “What is your speech essentially about? Tell me in a single sentence. If you can’t do that, you don’t know. And if you don’t know you aren’t ready to do a speech.”
Pastor Paul Martin has written in a similar vein: “There is a tendency to want to say everything about many things as opposed to saying the most important things about one thing….Every sermon ought to be explained by one sentence…When you are finished the preparation of your sermon you should be able to quickly answer the question, “In one sentence or less, what is your sermon about?” If you cannot do that, you do not know what your one big point is and you need to do more preparation and study.”
The big idea is best summarised in a title for the sermon and the best kind of title is not in the form of a statement (which means what follows will focus on information) but a command or, even better, a question: both of which demands a response from the hearer. For creative idea for sermon titles, see this article.
4. Does the introduction to my sermon highlight the big idea and engage with my hearers?
“I am not and have never been a typical Welsh preacher. I felt that in preaching the first thing that you had to do was to demonstrate to the people that what you were going to do was very relevant and urgently important. The Welsh style of preaching started with a verse and the preacher then told you the connection and analysed the words, but the man of the world did not know what he was talking about and was not interested. I started with the man whom I wanted to listen, the patient. It was a medical approach really – here is a patient, a person in trouble, and ignorant man who has been to the quacks, and so I deal with all that in the introduction. I wanted to get to the listener and then come to my exposition. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Volume 1: The First Forty Years 1899 – 1939, Iain Murray, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982)
As the saying goes:“If you don’t strike oil in the first five minutes, stop boring!” For this reason, the sermon introduction should be carefully scripted and practised. Nowadays I tend to do the introduction first and then read the Bible passage. If you read the Bible passage first, Christians can think they already understand it while non-Christians won’t see the relevance. If you start with the big idea which catches the attention of the hearers, you can then say, “Let’s turn to the Bible which addresses this issue.”
5. Is my sermon set in its context?
“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.” Every sermon needs to be placed within ever-widening circles of context
- In the passage/chapter in which it occurs
- In the book of the Bible in which it occurs (and maybe the sermon series)
- In the metanarrative of the Biblical story-line
- Old Testament – looking forward to the coming of Jesus
- New Testament – looking back to the first coming of Jesus and looking forward to the second coming of Jesus
Beware of “synagogue sermons” when preaching from the Old Testament. Sermons which a good Jew would be happy with (ie. that don’t mention Jesus) or which only mention him peripherally or briefly in conclusion, are not what we should be aiming for. Look for text or theme connections which link with the New Testament and the coming of Jesus.
6. Does my sermon have a structure which makes it easier to follow?
Any structure needs to be derived from the passage in which it occurs:
- In narrative, it can trace the time-line of the events described
- In teaching, it can follow the development of the argument/logic
- In wisdom literature it can often be like spokes of a wheel which radiate out from the hub (the central idea)
- Sermons do not need to have three points! Quite often, the text lends itself to two contrasting or parallel points.
- Points do not need to alliterate! If you can find something that works and is memorable, use it. But don’t force it.
7. Does my sermon have helpful illustrations?
Illustrations serve two functions. Most obviously they illuminate the point you are making, like windows letting in the light. Less obviously, illustrations provide breathing space for thinking. Rather than constantly adding new information to assimilate, illustrations provide a plateau to absorb what has been said before ‘moving on up’. It is the difference between a series of steps and one steep gradient.
8. Does my sermon have an effective conclusion?
There are at least two kinds of conclusion to a sermon:
- The summary conclusion where you review what has been taught.
- The climax conclusion where you return to the big idea and apply it directly (and succinctly!) to the hearers – individually or corporately.
Whichever you use, the sermon you need to answer the “So what?” question: i.e. what exactly do you want your hearers to do as a result of this message? Praise? Repent? And about what? This can be followed by a prayer which also needs to be prepared (at least in bullet points if not full text) to allow the people to respond to the message.
9. Does my sermon address all those present?
The application of your sermon is largely determined by the profile of the audience/congregation. If the congregation is largely made up of Christians, focus not only on the individual and the local church, but (depending on the subject) place your sermons and them in the wider context of both the national church and the broader culture of which we are all part. And always include an evangelistic emphasis and challenge – if only to remind Christians present of the greatness of the gospel and to wish their non-Christians friends were present (and maybe bring them along).
10. Could I make changes in the presentation of my sermon?
Would my sermon benefit from…
- a change in length?
“So for how long should you preach? The answer for me is around 23 minutes. The answer for Gary is around 21-30 minutes, with an average around 25. The answer for Tim Keller is as long as he likes. The answer for all of us? Plan to stop a minute or two before people start wishing you would. (And stop thinking you’re Tim Keller).” (Gary Millar & Phil Campbell, Saving Eutychus – how to preach God’s word and keep people awake” , Matthias Media, 2013)
Learn to estimate how long your sermon is going to be by the length of your notes. For me (using full notes) 1000 words = 10 minutes so I try to edit down to a maximum of 3000 words (allowing time for ad-libs).
- more variety in pace and volume? (especially in the conclusion – see point 8)
- the use of PowerPoint?
I find that using PowerPoint helps the hearers to see where I am going and helps me to clarify the structure of my sermon. My rule of thumb for its use is that it is an aid, not a substitute, for the spoken word. Someone only listening to the sermon should not miss anything substantial from not seeing the PowerPoint.Tweet
It has been over 10 years since we interviewed Tim Keller about his preaching. Here is that post (from April 2007) in it’s entirety.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay ‘every-member’ ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things–they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry is no substitute for strong preaching.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33.) During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15-20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work–that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has an corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be–someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership is to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers. And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet to with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.
This post comes from John Percival, pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong.
Many of us are used to a Bible Overview being taught through reading books, seminars, or Christian education classes. However, how about preaching a Bible Overview from the pulpit? We decided to do this recently. Here are some tips and reflections from our experience:
- We used an idea that originated with Andrew Reid (currently principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia) of eleven “Big Moments in God’s Story.” We preached one per week, looking at: creation, fall, promise, exodus, conquest, kingship, exile, return, cross, gospel and new creation. Of course, you could choose your own. However, this felt like enough of an overview without sacrificing too much detail. You can find the sermons and passages here.
- This was hard work. Sermon preparation time was more than normal. The main challenge was the amount of material to grasp before formulating an outline. I found it helpful to read as much of the Bible as I could for the relevant sections – easy for creation or the fall – less possible for the prophets!
- We wrote small group material to accompany the series. This gave our people an extra opportunity to interact with the sermons and gave the whole church a feeling of learning together. To ensure continuity, we cancelled two of our monthly prayer meetings to make sure all our small groups got a clear run at the material. Uploading the sermons promptly meant that anyone who missed the sermon could listen online before their group met.
- One challenge was the constant need to look both backwards and forwards in each sermon – i.e. backwards towards God’s promises to Abraham, and also forwards towards their fulfillment. This was even true for the life of Christ – which not only fulfills the Old Testament promises but also, of course, anticipates the new creation. Keeping the overview in view is important, especially for those who are visitors or might have missed the preceding week.
- This series was a good opportunity to hit “big picture” applications. These included:
- See your little story as part of God’s big story
- Learn to view God’s story as one story focused on Christ
- Grow in reading your Bible in context – especially the Old Testament
- Redefine your priorities now in the light of the future new creation
- Remember that an application can be a “knowledge” application that changes our thinking – it doesn’t have to focus on our actions.
- We needed to make some tough choices in order to keep the story side of things moving. In the end, wisdom literature, much of the prophets, and in-depth teaching on the application of the Law were all casualties.
- There are some great resources available: Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graham Goldsworthy’s “Gospel and Kingdom” are standard issue. Less well-known are Tim Chester’s “From Creation to New Creation” and Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.” We also encouraged families to engage with the series through “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
- We prayed for “light bulb moments” among our people as they saw how the Bible fitted together. For some, it helped them to get the main events of salvation history in the right order. For others, they came to realize that the Bible is fundamentally a book about God.
I was nervous about preaching this series, especially as I couldn’t find many examples of others tackling a Bible Overview on a Sunday morning. However, I’m really glad we did. I saw many connections I had never seen before, and believe it enriched the spiritual lives of many. At the moment, many of us will be planning our preaching schedule for next year. If so, how about including a Bible Overview?Tweet
The 2 Timothy 4 Trust wants to help us in this task. They are running two repeat seminars on Saturday mornings in November 2017, one in Glasgow the other in Edinburgh.
Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Chapel, will provide a seminar on planning a healthy preaching diet. I will then have the privilege of sharing some lessons learned from preaching a series on Leviticus. There will also be an opportunity for group discussion to cross-fertilise ideas in the field of sermon-series planning.
So the dates are…
- Saturday 11th November – Greenview Evangelical Church, Glasgow (9.30-12.30)
- Saturday 25th November – Charlotte Baptist Chapel, Edinburgh (9.30-12.30)
To book your place, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The event is free of charge.
This guest post comes from Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, and Director of the 2 Timothy 4 Trust
Following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June with the loss of over 80 lives, and the ongoing enquiry into how it happened, I wonder if anyone has preached on the topic “Who was responsible for the tower tragedy?” based on Luke 13:1-3 in which Jesus addresses the subject of a tragic event surrounding a tower in which 18 people were killed?
Of much wider consequence, in relation to growing alarm over the actions of the Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, what is the response of churches and preachers to the potential threat of nuclear war? More specifically, in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach?
Here’s an example from the introduction to a sermon by a famous preacher when the prospect of nuclear war loomed even larger than today:
Why have we had the crisis of this past week? Why are the nations of the world trembling as they are this morning? What is the cause of all this? Well, I want to suggest that ultimately the cause of these problems is a failure to understand the truth concerning the law of God. This is not some theoretical question; it is the most practical, the most urgent, question facing the world today. It is of vital importance throughout the whole of life, for Christians and for non-Christians.”
(D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Born of God Sermons from John Chapter 1, Banner of Truth Trust, 2011)
The editors of the book in which the sermon is found, give a helpful footnote: The Cuban missile crisis. This sermon was preached on 28th October 1962. The preacher was Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his text was John 1:17: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
Rather than church being a place to escape the world and all its problems, the worshippers in Westminster Chapel on that Sunday morning were confronted with the current crisis by the preacher and directed to the Scriptures to enable them not only to understand the cause of the crisis but also its resolution.
Today I suspect that this may not be the case in many churches where the Sunday service has little engagement with the world, nation and community outside its own narrow orbit. This was first brought home forcibly to me back in 2001 when I visited a number of churches during a sabbatical. One of them was what I would call a “dateless service” – one in which someone listening to a recording of it from beginning to end would not be able to identify when it took place (other than the dates of the hymns within the last 100 years!). The only name mentioned by the leader was someone named Jim who needed prayer as he was in hospital – only for someone to shout out that he was now home (Praise the Lord!) Yet it took place on the Sunday before a General Election and in the week in which the Crown Prince had murdered all the members of the Nepali Royal Family!
As I now travel around preaching in different churches, I am becoming increasingly concerned by the loss of the “intercessory prayer” in which “prayers, petitions, intercession and thanksgiving be made for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). In the event of nuclear war, I don’t expect this will change but instead the hatches will be battened down to await what will be the (increasingly predicted imminent) return of Christ.
But, to return to the topic – in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach? For those of us who preach consecutive expository sermons and have our preaching programme planned out for months or even a year, will we continue to preach what we have planned regardless? It is interesting to note that the sermon quoted above by Lloyd-Jones was part of a series of 32 sermons on John 1, so that he adapted or shaped the thrust of his sermon to the current situation.
Many of would perhaps lack the ability and flexibility to do that, so perhaps there is a place for a break in the planned series to respond to a particularly significant situation. In my own ministry, two such events spring to mind – the Dunblane massacre and the death of Princess Diana (which is still a live and painful event for many even now on the 20thÂ anniversary of her death).
So, in the event of a nuclear war, what would you preach? The neat and right answer is of course “the Gospel” and the history of past crises show that these are occasions for evangelistic preaching as fearful people seek answers. But what specific Scriptures might be particularly appropriate? There may be parallels with current events (tower tragedies) or moments in history – for example, the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. Or are these occasions for preaching from apocalyptic literature, especially the Book of Revelation? And many of the Psalms are especially relevant – for example, Psalm 46 in the event of a nuclear war:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
I’d be interested to know from other preachers
- Have you broken into a series and for what occasion?
- Do you have a “crisis” sermon on file?
- What Scriptures have you found especially relevant?
And especially, in the event of nuclear war, what would you preach?Tweet
This post was originally written for the Greenview church blog. I wrote it to the church in the aftermath of preaching Ruth 1.
Our sojourn is officially underway, as we travel the dusty roads, fruitful fields and overcrowded threshing floors of Ruth. What a lovely story it is! Yet the jaunt to Moab and back is more than a “good read”. It is, as we’ve already seen, a drama that magnifies the divine. In four short chapters, it is God’s plans and purposes – his grace and loving kindness – that sparkle like jewels in the crown.
But what lies at the heart of this wonderful story? What is, we might ask, the main theme?
Scholars have long debated the question – and it’s easy to see why. Several themes are prominent and seem to vie with each other for the reader’s attention. Rather than trying to prioritise them, why don’t we just enjoy them!
Emptiness and fullness
One of Ruth’s central themes is that of emptiness and fullness. Naomi’s family leave Bethlehem (the “house of bread”) for Moab because their empty stomachs are needing filled. But rather than finding ‘fullness’ Naomi experiences emptiness. Bereaved of her husband, then burying her two sons, Naomi is left with no grandchildren to carry on the family name. She is “empty” of relationships and prospects.
In a sense, there is something of a ‘parable’ here. Moab (for which read “the world”) can never give us “fullness.” No, fullness can only be found in the Promised Land (for which read “Christ”) and in Bethlehem (the birth place of Jesus!) particularly. Then from chapter two onwards we see God filling up Naomi’s emptiness: first with food (ch 2), then with marriage and children (for Ruth; ch 4). This is all a glimmering preview of the banquet we will enjoy, if we are in union with Christ.
Coincidence and providence
The story of Ruth has a number of happy coincidences. The key one, of course, is when Ruth happens to reap in a field belonging to Boaz (Ruth 2:3). Boaz just ‘happens’ to be a distant relative of Ruth’s mother in law, Naomi. Of all the field corners she could have picked, what were the chances of Ruth picking this one? Then there’s the turning up of Boaz (“And behold, Boaz” – Ruth 2:4, ESV) at just the right time to meet Ruth, and we see that the story could have ended differently than it did.
Doubtless the author of Ruth wants us to see that these are not accidents at all. Much better to call them “divine coincidences” (Ian Duguid). It is still true today that God mostly guides us when we are totally unconscious of it. Contemporary Christians are often rather fixated on the notion of special, dramatic guidance; yet we often underplay the absolute wonder of every-day providence.
Harshness and loving-kindness
Near the end of chapter 1, Naomi protests that the LORD has made her life very bitter (Ruth 1:22). Sinclair Ferguson suspects that she’s speaking of her bitter situation, rather than her bitter heart. But even if this is correct, other factors would lead us to see that Naomi is struggling to see God’s goodness towards her. When she returns to Bethlehem Naomi speaks of her comprehensive emptiness (Ruth 1:21). There is no mention of Ruth (Ruth 1:19-22) who had returned from Moab with her. Naomi was not alone. She wasn’t completely empty. Unnoticed, yet standing beside her, was the first-fruits of God’s kindness towards Naomi.
It’s often hard for us to see God’s kindness when our circumstances seem unkind. Perhaps like Naomi it will need some unmistakable, grain-heap act of kindness, for us to see that God is not against us.
Chaos and kingship
Ruth is set in the time of the judges, when Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. This is an important piece of context to keep in mind. Ruth is a very un-judges like book, a balm to soothe the reader after the warfare, bloodshed and sexual indiscretions of Judges. It’s gentle, subtle, pastoral style, draws us in and causes us to reflect on what we’re reading.
But while the style of Ruth is a million miles from Judges, one of the themes of Ruth (lineage; kingship) is related. Ruth provides the glorious answer to the chaos and carnage of a kingless nation. During the time of Judges God was working behind the scenes, preparing the ground for the coming of king David (Ruth 4:18-22). David would not just be charged with ruling the nation politically. He was called by God to reform the nation spiritually; to call Israel back to it’s Sinai roots.
Without Naomi, Ruth and what is recorded in this history, King David would never had lived. And King Jesus would never have been born (Matthew 1:1-16).
Namelessness and Redemption
Ah yes, the theme of redemption. One of the biggies in the book of Ruth. And not without good reason, for Boaz is frequently called a kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3:9). Kinsmen redeemer’s in ancient Israel were usually close family members, who would step in to save their relatives from poverty, or to save the family line from extinction. They would do this by buying back the lost family property and, in some cases, by beginning a new marriage that would bear children.
Though “strictly speaking” Boaz didn’t meet the criteria that would force him to be such a redeemer (he wasn’t the brother of the deceased; he was a distant relative; he could have argued that Ruth was a Moabite), he willingly rose to the challenge to save Naomi’s family from poverty and extinction. By paying a price and marrying Naomi’s daughter in law (Ruth 4:9,10) he brought security, hope and a future to this little family.
All of this points forward to Jesus. Jesus is the willing Redeemer who takes us as his bride and saves us from spiritual poverty. Jesus ensures that our name will be written in God’s book of life for eternity!Tweet
With a little relief and a tinge of sadness, I finished Leviticus last Sunday.
Despite some unfounded fears, the studies thrilled our souls. The series were not just full of laws. They were full of the Saviour whom the laws foreshadowed.
Given that we were camped in the Old Testament there was an “unfamiliarity” that proved stimulating. The gospel was seen – but in a deeper, fuller, more radiant way. God’s purposes were also seen. Yahweh’s desire, then and now, is to dwell among a people who are holy and wholly devoted.
Of course preaching a book like Leviticus is not without challenges. Many of the details are initially obscure to a contemporary audience. There is the challenge of knowing how much to explain. There is also the need for apologetics whenever Leviticus seems ‘at odds’ with modern tastes.
But the challenges are worth it. Leviticus is more than worth it’s time and toil.
In the final analysis, I covered Leviticus in 16 sermons. It doubtless could have been covered in a shorter period of time. But the length – at least for me – seemed just about right. It certainly didn’t feel repetitive. The variety of themes is wide-ranging and intriguing.
If you would like to listen to the series, the links are available below.
Soli Deo Gloria,
1. The Burnt Offering (Leviticus ch 1)
2. The Grain Offering (Leviticus ch 2)
3. The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3)
4. The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4)
5. The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5)
7. Strange Fire (Leviticus 10)
8. Clean & Unclean (Leviticus 11-15)
9. The Day Of Atonement (Leviticus 16)*
*This sermon was preached by Andy MacDonald, one of our elders.
10. Blood, blood, more blood (Leviticus 17)
11. Purity (Leviticus 18)
12. Feasts & foreshadows part 1 (Leviticus 23)
13. Feasts & foreshadows part 2 (Leviticus 23)
14. Jubilee! (Leviticus 25)
15. Blessings & Curses (Leviticus 26)
16. Wholly Devoted (Leviticus 27)Tweet
Questions are to bible study what the spade is to the archaeologist. They help us dig up hidden treasures. As we plant the shovel and find the gems, we should share the questions that aided discovery. These eleven questions have proved unusually fruitful in my study of Scripture.
1.Where does this book appear in the Bible’s plotline?
This is the first question I use to orientate myself. As I parachute down into Bible terrain I try to look around and get my bearings. The initial question needs to be: where am I? Do I find myself in the Old or New Testament? More specifically: where exactly am I in either of those Testaments?
It will greatly aid our study to have an increasing grasp of the Bible’s plotline. For the newbie, I would highly recommend God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts) or the two volumes by Mark Dever (Promises Made; Promises Kept). For a more advanced take on the plotline, check out Graham Goldsworthy.
2. Who was this book written to?
It is certainly important to ask: who wrote this book? Knowing the author can sometimes be decisive. The psalms of David, for instance, should be read in a certain way. These are not just songs and cries of any old believer; they are the songs and cries of a King who foreshadows the Messiah.
But the author isn’t always so important. Some Bible books are formally anonymous, after all.
What often carries greater weight is the identity of the recipient. So, it helps to understand that the original audience of..
- the Pentateuch was the young Jewish nation, round about the time of entering Canaan…
- …that the original audience of the Psalms were Jews, who sang these songs in a prophetic context…
- …that Luke’s gospel was written to a man who needed greater certainty about the Christian faith….
- …that Revelation is being written to persecuted Christians in the first century…
If we forget the original audience, our interpretation will go skew-whiff.
3. What is the book’s overall message?
We often forget to ask this vital question. Getting lost in our passage, we tend to lose sight of the overall thrust.
To uncover the overall message, we need to prayerfully read the entirety. We look for structures, developing themes and telling-statements. These in turn will lead us to the book’s big theme.
To give an example of why this matters, take 1st John. The overarching thrust is that John’s readers can have assurance of being genuine Christians. John’s recipients were living in the aftermath of certain people leaving their church. These leavers claimed to have superior spiritual knowledge, and those who stayed behind were left to question their own salvation. John assures his readers that they HAVE true fellowship with God. 1st John then, isn’t so much a challenge to John’s readers, as a comfort to them. Seeing this bigger point, will stop us from misapplying the letter in its details. We mustn’t preach these passages as though they are frightening tests of assurance!
4. What is the wider context of each passage/verse?
The “promise box” approach to Bible study is still alive and well. People lift a Bible verse out of context and in splendid isolation ask, what does this mean? This can only lead us making up meaning!
Handling the Bible responsibly means examining each verse in the flow of the passage. So Paul’s claim that he can do everything through Christ’s strength (Phil 4: 13) is to be understood in the flow of what he’s said before (he’s been talking about contentment in circumstances of poverty). Paul isn’t saying that in Christ he can jump over tall buildings! He’s saying he can survive through times of want.
5. What is the passage structure?
Every Bible passage has some kind of structure. We discern the structure in different ways depending on the genre:
- If it’s a narrative…what are the turns in the plot? Where is the point of crisis? What is the great resolution?
- If it’s an epistle: What are the steps in the argument? What is the progression of logic from a to b to c?
- If it’s a psalm: what are the stanzas/verses? Is there a chorus line that’s repeated? Is there a chiasm? (where the main point lies in the middle, and parallel points lie to either side)
6. What is the surprise in the passage?
Dale Ralph Davis put me on to this one. The Bible is full of the unexpected, so we should be on the look out for it.
This is especially important when studying familiar passages. It was a surprise to me recently to notice that Elijah, in the contest at Carmel, set up what was essentially a ‘burnt offering’ (see Leviticus 1). I then started to notice other ways in which Elijah was calling Israel back to the law and old patterns of faithful worship.
7. What is the main message of the passage? (hint: this is usually a truth about God)
Even short passages can be packed with many truths. Take Mark 4:35-41. You’ve got the disciples obeying Jesus command; you’ve got Jesus sleeping on the boat; there’s the calming of the storm, and then the disciples being confronted for their unbelief.
But what is the main point of the story? To work this out we need to grapple with
- the overall message of Mark’s gospel (Jesus is God’s suffering servant),
- the context of the chapter (the early part of Mark emphasises Jesus’ identity),
- the content of chapter 4 (which has a focus on God’s word)
- and the details of the story (Jesus controls nature with his word, and the disciples are left asking ‘who is this’?).
- Putting all these things together, we could say that the storm stilling story reveals the God-man whose word controls creation.
8. What was the application to the original readers?
Don’t immediately ask what a Psalm means to you. Ask what it would have meant to the Jew who first sung it? The songs of ascent (Psalms 120-134) meant something to the Jews. They sang Psalm 121 with a literal foreboding of being surrounded by enemies on every side. That original experience is not meant to be glossed over.
It is equally crucial to ask this of the New Testament. What would Revelation 12 have meant to 1st century persecuted Christians? A lot of zany interpretation about Revelation would be cured instantly if we recognised that many suggested interpretations would have made no sense to the original readers!
9. How does the passage relate to Christ and then the church?
A key question to ask if we’re in the Old Testament. If I’m preaching on the temple-vision in Ezekiel (Ez 40-48) I need to think through how this is fulfilled in Christ (John 2:19) and then in the church (1 Cor 3:16). When viewed through the eyes of the NT, Ezekiel is not promising a literal, earthly temple. He is previewing a grander temple: Jesus Christ, and the church that is God’s dwelling place.
10. What is the general application to a contemporary Christian?
Before we can extrapolate the nuances of application, we need to get clear the application generally. When preaching on Leviticus 23 last Sunday I said that the application of these festivals was to rest and rejoice in Christ’s work. Of course, how that resting and rejoicing will play out will look different for a teenager than it does for a married man or an older person. But before we can delineate those application lines, we have to know the main thrust.
11. How does the passage reform me, my church and my world?
It might be helpful to think of three concentric circles: me, my church, and my world. Of course if we are preaching we might want to expand these categories much further. But for personal bible study these will probably be enough. The latter two questions, especially, will help to push us beyond our usual individualism.
Preachers rarely confess this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to look weak, or appear to be inviting self-pity. But if preachers were a tad more vulnerable they would speak more often about preaching’s hidden challenges.
The phases of exegesis and sermon-construction bring their own serious exertions, that is true. But composing the sermon can be easier than actually preaching it. In the hours prior to the sermon we can find our hearts beset by fear and unbelief. The moment of preaching (though often wonderfully assisted) is not insulated from the attacks of the evil one. The moments after preaching can see us prone to either lofty pride on the one hand, or crushing discouragement on the other. The preacher’s position may be lofty, but like a climber, poised on a pinnacle, there are slippery slopes on every side.
Someone who feared the precipice more than most was John Bunyan. Best known for his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan also wrote a revealing biography: Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners. In this transparent testimonial Bunyan reveals his trials in relation to preaching. Bunyan’s revelations are not only fascinating. They will resonate with many 21st century expositors.
Fears beforehand that he won’t be useful or coherent
“Sometimes I should be assaulted with great discouragement therein, fearing that I should not be able to speak the Word at all to edification…that I should not be able to speak sense unto the people.”
Physical weakness during the sermon
“At which times I should have such a strange faintness and strengthlessness seize upon my body that my legs have scarce been able to carry me to the place of exercise.”
Struggling with sin in the act of preaching
“Sometimes, again, when I have been preaching, I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy, and strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the congregation.”
Losing one’s way in the middle of the sermon
“I have also at some times, even when I have begun to speak the Word with much clearness, evidence, and liberty of speech, yet been before the ending of that opportunity so blinded, and so estranged from the things I have been speaking, and have also been so straitened in my speech, as to utterance before the people, that I have been as if I had not known or remembered what I have been about, or as if my head had been in a bag all the time of the exercise.”
“Again, when as sometimes I have been about to preach upon some smart and scorching portion of the Word, I have found the tempter suggest, What, will you preach this? this condemns yourself; of this your own soul is guilty; wherefore preach not of it at all; or if you do, yet so mince it as to make way for your own escape; lest instead of awakening others, you lay that guilt upon your own soul as you will never get from under.”
“But, I thank the Lord, I have been kept from consenting to these so horrid suggestions, and have rather, as Samson, bowed myself with all my might, to condemn sin and transgression wherever I found it, yea, though therein also I did bring guilt upon my own conscience! ‘Let me die,’ thought I, ‘with the Philistines’ (Judg. 16.29, 30), rather than deal corruptly with the blessed Word of God.”
“I have also, while found in this blessed work of Christ, been often tempted to pride and liftings up of heart….Christ can use…gifted men, as with them to affect the souls of His people in His church; yet when He hath done all, hang them by as lifeless, though sounding cymbals. This consideration, therefore, together with some others, were, for the most part, as a maul on the head of pride, and desire of vain glory; what, thought I, shall I be proud because I am a sounding brass? Is it so much to be a fiddle? Hath not the least creature that hath life, more of God in it than these?”
Conclusion: a call for honesty and prayer
Let me finish in a Bunyan-esque sort of way: “methinks” that we need to be more honest about our hidden struggles. Let’s talk about these challenges, at least in our preacher’s fraternals. And if you are not preacher, would you pray for us? We need your prayers in all sorts of ways.Tweet