(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.

Popery in the Pulpit

March 25, 2014

The preacher has neither authority nor right to use the pulpit as a place to express his own opinions on anything: the pulpit is not a soapbox. Too many preachers have exaggerated, arrogant, and unscriptural notions of their office whereby they assume the prerogative of dictating the consciences of their people in every sphere of life. That is popery, and there is no place for it in the Church of Christ. (Michael BarrettThe Beauty of Holiness: A Guide to Biblical Worship92)

This quotation from Barrett raises some good questions that need to be discussed:

  • What is a rightful use of one’s authority in the pulpit?
  • How should a preacher view himself in relationship to the Word he preaches and the people to whom he preaches?
  • Do personal opinions have any place in preaching? If not, why not? If so, why? And if so, how should they be presented in a sermon?
  • What is the relationship of Christian preaching to the conscience of a believer? When has a preacher crossed the line of his God-given authority?
  • Is it legitimate for a preacher to apply the Scripture to “every sphere of life”?

Our calling as preachers is really very simple. We study, we stand before our people, we read the text, and we explain it. We reprove, rebuke, exhort, encourage, and teach—and then we do it all again and again and again.

– Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 64.

Our Calling as Preachers

Kevin DeYoung discusses the benefits and dangers of preaching consecutively through books of the Bible.

Here are the risks, according to DeYoung:

  1. Selecting preaching units that are too small.
  2. Wearing out your congregration by moving too slowly.
  3. Spending too much time in books that are not as “fruitful” or “central to the plot line.”

But, as DeYoung argues, the benefits far outweigh the dangers. Preaching consecutively through books of the Bible . . .

  1. exposes your congregation to the whole counsel of God and keeps you from preaching only on those things that you are passionate about or that seem relevant to you or your congregation.
  2. helps you avoid the arduous task of having to select a new text for each sermon.
  3. gives context to the individual stories and sections of the Bible.

Question: What other risks and rewards would you add to DeYoung’s list?

Preaching may be slow work; it often is; it is a long-term policy. But my whole contention is that it works, that it pays, and that it is honoured, and must be, because it is God’s own method. . . . [So,] after you have tried these other methods and schemes, and found that they will come to nothing you will be driven back to this ultimately. This is the method by which churches have always come into being. You see it in the New Testament, and you see it in the subsequent history of the Church, and you can see it in this modern world. – Martyn Lloyd-Jones (via Dan Dumas)

Preaching: That Slow, Long-Term But Time-Tested and God-Honored Method of Church Growth

There’s . . . an underplayed devotional aspect to preaching. . . . One of the most powerful things is when your people get to watch you worship your way through your own sermon. – Paul Tripp

Devotional Preaching: Worshipping Your Way Through Your Sermon

“How can young preachers receive compliments humbly?”

This was a question posed to Al Mohler on his 02-08-14 Ask Anything:Weekend edition. His answer is quite thoughtful and helpful.

Here’s a brief summary, but I would encourage you to listen to his entire response. (The question begins at 7:54 and Mohler’s answer runs through 11:56).

Compliments can, of course, puff a preacher up, as Mohler notes. But they can also leave us “scratching our heads.” In general, we should receive any compliment as “a gift” no matter how it is packaged. God’s people want to respond to God’s working in their lives. However, they are not always equipped with the right vocabulary. Perhaps we need to do a better job of helping them know what to look for in a truly good sermon and how they can best express that. But, as Mohler makes clear, even though we should not be living for man’s approval, we are human beings who need encouragement. So receive any compliment humbly as a gift.

I recently listened to an audio recording of Sinclair Ferguson addressing the topic of “Preaching Christ in All the Scriptures.”

In the following excerpt he explains why he chose to address this particular topic. What he says raises a really important question: What is the one thing you want to be known for as a preacher? Or perhaps even more hard hitting, What (in reality) are you known for?

The issue of preaching Christ has (for me at least) has become a matter of increasing concern. And I say that for a number of reasons.

If Alistair [Begg] were already here, I’d probably ask him to tell us the story, but I remember him telling me on one occasion that very shortly after he came to United States he was playing golf with somebody, just one other minister, they were there, locked together for eight hours in a golf buggy, and at one point this man turned to him and said to him, “So, Alistair, what’s your thing?”

“What’s your thing?” And the implication was–I mean, Alistair thought, they never told me before I came to the United States if I was going to be a minister of the gospel here–that I needed a “thing.”  You know, something that was distinctive.

But to me it is a very striking thing the extent to which that is true. That if you’re going to be a model minister in these days people expect that you will have your thing. You will have your special emphasis.

And if you think about the people who are held before us, the people who are interviewed in the preaching magazines that you either get free or perhaps subscribe to. The models that are held up to us of ministry, there is usually something distinctive about their ministry.

It would be an interesting exercise . . . if we just went round the tables, and those of you who are married, I asked your wife, “What is the distinctive thing about your husband’s preaching ministry?” Or your associates–“What is the distinctive thing about your ministry?”

Now the thing that concerns me (and this is just an arrow shot at a venture from a relatively little exposure to the entirety of North American evangelicalism) but my concern is—that one might hear all too infrequently on these occasions—“His thing is to preach only Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

And actually if you think of the dominant models of ministry in our time—just flash a few names through your mind of people who perhaps you greatly admire and respect, and I say this very conscious of the fact—that God gives particular individuals particular burdens. Granted that God gives particular individuals particular burdens–Peter’s burden and Paul’s burden were different. Isaiah’s burden…or Ezekiel’s burden were different. Granted that, and the patterns of their ministries were different. I don’t think Isaiah could have been lying on his side anymore than he would have flown in the air. He just wasn’t a lie-on-your-side kind of individual. Different burdens.

But to me the great question is, no matter what the particularity of my burden may be, often that is related to the context of my regeneration and conversion and the location of my ministry, it ought to be possible to say of every gospel minister, and especially those gospel ministers we most admire, the thing that is manifestly, absolutely at the core and center of this ministry, that makes it apostolic, is that you can never sitting under that ministry, you can never escape from the centrality of Jesus Christ.

And I say that’s a concern to me, because I am not convinced that that would universally be said. And I think it’s worth us asking ourselves whether we suspect that it would be said of our ministry. “The thing about him in his ministry (now I recognize he has a special burden, and he’s got unusual gifts in this area,” but over the piece [?] you sit under that ministry, and the thing that you will be persuaded to say is, “This ministry is Christ-centered, Christ-dominated, and Christ-full.” And if anything else (and this might well be the secret) this minister is Christ-intoxicated. (personal transcription; formatting and emphasis added)

So, preacher, what’s your thing?

 

 

Sometimes when I tell people I teach homiletics, they reply, “I remember when I took a class on Bible interpretation in college.” At that point I know they have confused homiletics (the science of preaching) with hermeneutics (the science of interpretation).

The confusion, of course, comes from the fact that the two words are similar in sound. However, they are two distinct disciplines. But not unrelated disciplines. In fact, there is the closest possible connection between them.

So what exactly is the relationship between interpretation and preaching, between hermeneutics and homiletics?

How you answer this question most likely depends on your understanding of the nature and task of preaching. If I believe that my primary responsibility as a preacher is to say what God said, then the central, governing question that fills my mind (at least initially) is this: What did the A/author of this text mean when H/he said what H/he said?

I want to know the answer to that question. I must know the answer to that question.

And, so, how do I come to that point where I know (or at least think I know)? Well, I must apply the generally-agreed-upon (at least in theologically conservative circles) principles of biblical interpretation. That is hermeneutics.

And that is why someone like David Allen would make the claim,

There is no good preaching apart from good interpretation.

Or to put it another way, David Jackman writes,

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

Jackman’s statement is quite good and warrants our attention. There is one, huge key word here: faithfully. Here’s why I think that. Let’s take the word faithfully out of Jackman’s statement and see what we get.

Where the Word of God is . . . taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

True or false? Well, it depends, right? It depends on what kind of teaching is going on. The mere fact that someone is standing up and preaching from the Bible doesn’t guarantee that God’s voice is being heard clearly and unobtrusively. The fact is–the guy may be misrepresenting what the Bible says. In that case, are we really hearing God’s voice? That’s why Jackman insists

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard. (emphasis mine)

So if our objective is to let God’s voice be heard clearly and authentically, then we must be faithful in our teaching. And in order to be faithful in our teaching, we must first be right in our interpretation. That’s how hermeneutics and homiletics are related, at least in part. To be right in our homiletics we must first be right in our hermeneutics. Or to put it another way: there is no right homiletics apart from right hermeneutics.

Okay, so what? Someone says, “That’s nice. They’re related. Who cares?” Well, let me give you some implications of this vital and important relationship between hermeneutics and homiletics:

Implications for Teaching Homiletics

As a teacher of preaching, I have realized that a big part of my job is teaching guys how to think about texts and interpret them properly. If they don’t get that, it doesn’t matter how good they are at communicating. It doesn’t matter how likeable and effective they are as public speakers. If they are not saying what God said, they have missed the point of preaching.

Implications for Sermon Preparation

Though I am certainly for designing a logical and well-prepared sermon, I really need to discipline myself to make sure I am comfortable with the point of the passage before I start sermonizing. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how symmetrical and parallel my points are if God’s voice is muffled in the process.

Here’s a comparison that might help. Let’s say I pop a brand new CD into my car’s stereo system, but when it plays it sounds terrible. So I take the CD out and look it over for scratches and defects. Nothing. In fact, when I play it on my home system, it sounds amazingly clear and beautiful. So I take my vehicle to a car audio store and have them check it out. It’s then I find out that the speakers are bad. In other words, there was nothing wrong with the electronic signal coming from the CD. Rather, it was the speaker’s translation (or mistranslation) of that signal that resulted in the poor audio quality.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with God’s Word. The signal emitted is just fine. But we as the speakers can sometimes so muffle and distort that signal (through misinterpretation–perhaps due to a flawed hermeneutic) that what is being heard may not be clear, or even worse, it may be totally distorted and unrecognizable.

That is why careful interpretation is foundational for quality proclamation.

Implications for the Preacher’s Personal Reading

In addition to reading books on preaching, a preacher should also be reading books to help him interpret the Bible. Though there are many good works available in this area, here are a few that come immediately to my mind (in no particular order).

  1. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kaiser & Silva
  2. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible – Duvall & Hays
  3. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard
  4. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth – Fee & Stuart
  5. The Hermeneutical Spiral – Osborne
  6. Invitation to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kostenberger & Patterson
  7. Exegetical Fallacies – Carson
  8. Getting the Message – Doriani
  9. Understanding and Applying the Bible – McQuilkin
  10. Basic Bible Interpretation – Zuck

Implications for the Sermon

At times we want to rush to the application for the sake of our audience. And though I certainly don’t suggest that we dump all our heremeutical findings on our listeners, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t take the time to establish that our applications are really based on the authentic and therefore authoritative voice of God. In other words, the foundation of our sermon application has to be a well-established and clearly communicated interpretation of the passage.  To bypass this critical step is to undercut our authority.

Implications for Sermon Evaluation

I am concerned that my students be able to employ principles of effective speaking in communicating God’s Word. I do think we should be concerned with how we say what we say. (In fact, a big portion of my dissertation is taken up with the rhetoric of preaching.) But the how is irrelevant if the what is not what it ought to be. When I evaluate a sermon, my first and primary question must be, “Did this guy say what God said?” If not, it doesn’t matter how well he said it.

Conclusion

Again, in the words of Jackman, “Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.” Here we have hermeneutics (faithfully) and homiletics (taught) brought together to accomplish something beautiful and powerful (the voice of God . . . authentically heard). And that’s what Christ’s true sheep really want: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Recently my wife pointed out the constellation Orion to our kids as we were driving home one night. Well, they were having a bit of a hard time identifying it amidst all the other stars in the sky.

So, being the techy, cool dad that I am, I pulled out my smartphone when we got home and held it up to the night sky with the help of Google Sky Map. As soon as I did Orion came into clear focus. Or did it?

Though my kids were amazed, my wife was not. She came over, saw what we were looking at, and said, “That’s not Orion. It’s over there.” And, lo and behold, she was right. Just off to the right of my Orion was the real Orion. And once I turned the phone in that direction, it recalibrated and identified the true Orion.

Boy did I feel dumb (especially when Wikipedia says “Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous and recognizable constellations in the night sky.” Ouch.)

But I learned a valuable lesson that night–beware of forcing forms.

Here’s what was so sad. Even though what I saw in the sky didn’t exactly fit what I saw on my phone, I made it fit. I naively assumed Google Sky Maps and my Samsung phone would never lead me astray. Therefore, what they were showing me trumped what I was actually seeing in the sky. Sad. There I am telling my kids, “Look. There’s Orion, right there. See that line over there? That’s his raised hand. And there’s his club. See it, guys?” “Yeah, yeah, I see it, Daddy.” Well, it wasn’t there at all. I was forcing the form and in the process distorting my kids’ view of astronomical reality.

Unfortunately what happened that night in my driveway also happens in the pulpit–preachers take a pre-constructed homiletical form and force it onto the text of Scripture and in the process distort their congregation’s view of scriptural reality.

So here’s the question I’d like to raise: are we ever guilty of forcing human structures onto holy scripture? Of taking prefabricated homiletical forms and pressing them down hard onto the text until the text comes out looking like the form?

And here’s what’s really sad–even though we might have this sense deep down that the text doesn’t fit this form, we make it fit. Because it has to fit.

One example will suffice. I was introduced early on to the key word approach to preaching. Here it is in a nutshell.

  • You establish the proposition of your sermon.
  • Then you craft a question (interrogative) that comes out of the proposition and is answered by what is called the “transition” sentence.
  • The transition sentence contains a “key word” that serves as the umbrella concept for each of the main points.

So, if I were preaching Romans 1:16-17 the key word approach might look something like this:

Proposition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel.

Interrogative: Why must we be bold in our proclamation of the gospel?

Transition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel for the following reasons.

Main point 1: Because the gospel is the power of God.

Main point 2: Because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God.

In this case the key word is “reasons.” And each of the main points is a reason. Now, I selected Romans 1:16-17 because I think this particular passage does fit the form rather well.  Paul says he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Then he follows up with two for’s providing the reasons for his unashamedness.

But here’s the danger. I may think to myself, “Well, that worked quite well. I like that form. It feels good to have everything so tightly and neatly structured. It’s easy to preach. It makes it easy for my listeners to follow the logic of the sermon and so on. I think I’ll use that form for my next sermon.” Okay, but what if the next sermon text isn’t Orion? What if I take the same key word approach and apply it to, let’s say, Romans 3:21-26. Well, the form may or may not fit in that case.

I’m certainly not against homiletical forms. I teach them to my students. I use them when I preach. Every sermon has some kind of form. What I am cautioning against is coming to a text of scripture and forcing a pre-constructed, predetermined form onto a passage without giving sufficient consideration to its true and actual configuration.

There are, of course, other factors involved in determining what shape your sermon should take. But that’s for another post. Here I’m simply making the point that the form of our text should heavily inform the form of our sermon. And if it does, then we will be less likely to subject holy Scripture to human structures and distort reality in the process.