How to Select a Preaching Text, Part 1

March 31, 2014

(This is the first a two-part series on selecting a preaching text within an expository book series.)

There are a number of factors involved in selecting a text (or topic or series) for preaching. There are seasonal factors like Christmas and Easter. There are national or global factors like the horrific shooting of little children at a public school. There are pastoral or congregational factors related to the needs of the flock. And there are also personal or devotional factors like a passage or theme that has gripped us to the core and just won’t let us go.

In this post, however, I am primarily concerned to address the question of text selection within the context of an expository book series. The standard approach in such a series is to work through a book unit by unit. But what determines the length of the unit? How many verses should I include in my next preaching text?

Perhaps a simple example would help.

Let’s say you were preaching through 1 Peter, and you came to chapter 5 in the book series. There are two basic steps you would need to take to determine the length of your preaching text. You should first seek to identify the next consecutive thought unit, and then you should make your final decision based on the purpose of the text and sermon.

In this post I will deal with the first step in the process. In Part 2 I will discuss the place of purpose in selecting a text.

Step 1: Identify the Next Consecutive Thought Unit.

Why am I advocating that you start with a thought unit? Because a thought unit is just that–a unit of thought, and as such, it has unit-y. So for those who advocate (as I do) that a sermon should have one central idea or thought, the thought unit is the most natural and semantically defensible place to begin (see also David Finkbeiner in The Moody Handbook of Preaching, 149-150).

In an epistle the basic unit of thought is a paragraph. In a poem (or song) a stanza. In a narrative a scene. In the Gospels a pericope. And so on.

That’s why I would recommend that you begin by seeking to identify the next legitimate thought unit in the book you are preaching through, even if your final preaching text ends up being smaller or larger than that unit.

Now, how is this done? How do you decide which verses constitute a thought unit?

(a) Prayer

Never overlook what is perhaps most obvious but most necessary, namely, prayer. Ask God to direct your mind and heart through the process of selecting a text. Plead for wisdom to know what would best feed the flock in this particular sermon.

(b) Personal study

Next, before consulting any secondary sources, read through chapter 5 of 1 Peter on your own to see if you can determine the natural divisions within the chapter.  Look for any textual clues that indicate a significant shift in thought or break in the action (e.g. the word “likewise” in v. 5). Keep in mind that the chapter and verse divisions are not inspired.

But what if you go through that process on your own, and you still aren’t completely sure which verses to include in your preaching text?

(c) Compare several modern English translations

Here’s what I would suggest. I would look up 1 Peter 5 in several modern English translations that have paragraph markers to see how they divide up the passage. That’s actually quite easy to do using a site like www.biblegateway.com or a computer program like Logos Bible Software. Here’s what you’ll find. The KJV is typically displayed in verse-by-verse format and not in paragraph form. So that doesn’t help. The NIV, NKJV, NLT, and HCSB have 5:1-4 as a unit. The NASB and ESV have 5:1-5 as a unit.

(d) Consult the paragraph divisions in your Greek New Testament.

In addition to comparing several English translations, you should also consult an edition of the original language text to see how they paragraphed the material.  For example, if you look at the United Bible Societies 4th revised edition Greek New Testament, you will find that they divide chapter 5 this way: 5:1-4; 5:5; 5:6-7; 5:8-11; 5:12-14.  The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th edition, however, has 1 Peter 5  sectioned off as follows: 5:1-5; 5:6-11; 5:12-14. So, the UBS text confirms the divisions of the NIV, NKJV, NLT, and HCSB while the NA27 text confirms the divisions of the NAS and ESV.

(e) Consult the outlines of several reputable secondary sources.

Secondary sources include resources like study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries. Though a study Bible may be your first choice, I tend to reach for several reputable (technical or expositional) commentaries to see how they outline the passage.

  • Thomas Schreiner in the New American Commentary series treats 1 Peter 5 in three sections: 5:1-5; 5:6-11; 5:12-14.
  • Scot McKnight in the NIV Application Commentary series has two sections: 5:1-5; 5:6-14.
  • Karen Jobes writing in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series has three divisions: 5:1-5; 5:6-11; 5:12-14.
  • J. Ramsey Michaels in the Word Biblical Commentary series takes the following approach: 5:1-5; 5:6-11; 5:12-14.
  • Peter Davids in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series takes the same approach: 5:1-5; 6-11; 5:12-14.

So, of these five very fine commentaries, all of them took 5:1-5 as the thought unit.

(f) Chart your findings.

Next, in order to see and compare your findings, you might want to make a paragraph comparison chart for 1 Peter 5. This step isn’t always (or ever) necessary, but if you’re a visual learner like I am, you may find it to be helpful in making sense of your research. Doing the whole book at once can also help you map out the series in advance.

Conclusion

So where do you begin in this process of selecting a text? Begin by looking for the next thought unit in the book. This is only the first step, however.  As Finkbeiner notes, “A paragraph-centered approach does not demand that each sermon cover only one paragraph (even if it often will).” And that’s because there’s another factor to consider before you make your final decision. This factor will be dealt with in the next post.

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

2 responses to How to Select a Preaching Text, Part 1

  1. great article, and very much helpful. Thanks for posting!

  2. Good article Kerry! This is something that I intend to use with seminary students. Thanks!