Note: Preacher School is a series we run in our local church (you can read about it here). It is aimed at men who have a desire to preach God’s Word, but have no formal theological training. This past summer we had about a dozen guys join us between the ages of 20 and 50, most of whom were preaching for the first time. What I present here are weekly handouts from our meetings. Just so you know, they include Biblical mandates, but they are also overflowing with personal opinions gained after 26 years of preaching. I do not take the time to dissect between Biblical mandate and personal opinion, so my cultural biases and presuppositions will be on full display. I welcome your correction, addition, improvement and collegial interaction!
One of the first and worst errors a new preacher often commits is talking around the text, rather than preaching the message of the text. Thoughts about introductions, illustrations and outlines may so clog his brain that he never gets to explaining what the Bible actually says. Like a plane that never lands, he keeps sputtering along until he drops out of the sky. Or, he may speak about the words of a certain verse or paragraph, but miss their main point entirely. Both errors have a common cause and an easy solution.
The best preachers are Bible readers. It may sound simple, but answer this question, “Have you read the entire Bible?” How many times have you read it? How can you preach with conviction and clarity if you don’t know the text? Don’t wait for tomorrow – if you are not a faithful reader of God’s Word today, become one now.
Read Fully and Frequently
Have you met that old woman? The one in your church who has never been to Bible School or Seminary, yet seems to have a profoundly sensitive theological radar. She is one of those dear saints who has been reading her Bible thoughtfully for years and years and knows who you mean when you say, “Balaam.” May you be like her!
The first rule of preaching is to read your Bible, a lot. And to read it from cover to cover. A good rule of thumb is to try and read the entire Bible at least once every year. I have often thought that Bible reading is a little like dying a white cloth. The more the cloth is dipped into the dye the more it takes on its colour. In like fashion, the more you read your Bible, the more you become like the Truth it teaches.
A good preacher lives with a settled indignation against ignorance. When you come across situations you do not grasp, commands that seem obscure, or words you do not understand, you must discipline yourself to dig up answers. This is really the heart of all good preaching – seeking to understand what the text says.
So a close reader will notice connecting words, repeated words and theologically-loaded words. He will observe patterns and repetition. He will anchor himself in the plot-line of redemptive history and avoid reading into one text what does not belong. He has learned that “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text” and he will read with a mind to never commit this sin! Most of all, he will work at catching the flow of thought of the sentence, then paragraph, then book, then testament and finally, his whole Bible.
Martin Lloyd-Jones insisted that good Bible reading included keeping an open notebook beside you. Learn to write down your observations and to track ideas. It is amazing how many you will get as you read and even more amazing how many you will forget by the time you are done!
Sometimes an entire preaching outline will pop into your mind as you read the text. Write it down. It may look like gibberish one week from now and be of no use, but often it reflects at least the beginning of some key thoughts toward understanding the passage. I am often amused by how much my personal reading relates to whatever text of the Bible I happen to be preaching. So, even if I am not preaching the other text, it may serve as a wonderful illustration to the passage I am preaching. But I will forget it completely if I do not jot it down. If you are really on your game you will store all this electronically with some means of searching for future reference.
The wisest Bible readers know that God is the One who grants understanding, so they will interact with Him as they read. By this I do not mean praying before you read (an excellent habit!) but praying as you read. This is God’s Word, so communicate with Him as you hear from Him. Tell Him what you do not understand, beg His enlightening work through His Spirit, delight in His grace and truth personally – there are a hundred ways to commune with Him as you read. Remember, the end goal is just to understand His Word as much as it is to understand Him. He is the grand object of our attention and affections.
You would think me an odd husband indeed if I told you the way I get to know and understand my wife (1 Peter 3:7) is by silently watching her every day. How can I truly know her if I am not asking questions, clarifying misunderstandings, expressing praise and gratitude, and fact-checking my observations? The Lord is no less relational. Your study ought to be something of a noisy place, full of pleadings and praises.
“Why read to understand when there is a commentary just over there to tell me what it means?” An excellent question. May I suggest the answer forms around the concepts of integrity and authenticity? A man always cherishes more that which he built with his own hands. In like fashion, a preacher more fully owns, believes in and is changed by Truth that he has had to dig up by his own mental sweat and effort. That process of digging has helped to make it his own.
Too much preaching is commentary-reflux. There is a place for the commentaries, but it comes much later. Learn to go to them last, to check to see if you are a heretic. But do not lean on them first. I try to keep it a rule that I will not consult a commentary until I have at least fashioned one idea of what a certain text means. I am happy to be corrected on a regular basis.
I am sure you have had that experience of visiting another church and following along in your Bible as the preacher references another translation. We are often surprised at the variances. Simply reading three English translations of your text will likely alert you to all of the major interpretive issues you need to consider. Early in your study you ought to consult these translations and note any discrepancies or difference in emphases.
As a side note, if you know the Hebrew and Greek, then let me encourage you to be reading from your text in the original language. This is obviously not something everyone can do, but if you have even one year of study in the language you can be reading. My old college professor suggested we read from an interlinear with a 3×5 card. Cover the English translation below the word and try to read along, but drop the card when you’re stuck. That way you are moving at a pace fast enough to get the sense of the syntax and flow of thought.
So preacher, if you are not already, then begin today to read your Bible. “Eat” your Bible (Jeremiah 15:16), study your Bible (Ezra 7:10), run your life by your Bible (Psalm 119:9-11) and do not add a thing to your Bible (Revelation 22:18).