Archives For Context

Okay, so you have your preaching text selected for this Sunday and you’re ready to dig in and start studying. Question–where should you start?

Should you begin by studying the broader literary context (a macroscopic perspective) or by examining the details of the text itself (a microscopic perspective)? In other words, should you move from the context inward or from the text outward?

Here’s what NT scholar Gordon Fee says in answer to that question:

Before the investigation of any sentence, paragraph, or other subsection of a document, one always needs to have a good sense about the entire document. . . . You never start exegeting a book at chapter 1, verse 1. The first step is always to read the entire document through. You need a provisional sense of the whole before analyzing any of its parts. (New Testament Exegesis, 3d ed., 8-9, emphasis mine)

Martin Luther pictures it this way:

I study my Bible like I gather apples. First I shake the whole tree, that the ripest may fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.

The Expository Book Series

No matter what kind of preaching you are doing (expository, textual, or topical) big-picture thinking and study are critical. But if you’re planning to preach through a book of the Bible, you need to start by studying the book as a whole.

The best way to do that is to read through the book multiple times. This was the practice of the well-known British expositor, G. Campbell Morgan:

After having selected a text, Morgan would read the entire book in which it was found, as many as forty or fifty times. Then he was able to feel the scope, the main structure, of the book. This was done before he took his pencil in hand to put down the outline of the general movements of the book. For Morgan believed the minister’s work should first be original, and afterward he should consult the commentaries.” Arthur F. Katt, “G. Campbell Morgan and Sermon Preparation,” The Seminary Review 7, no. 1 (Fall 1960): 4.

Whether or not you read through the book 40-50 times you should have a good grasp on the following:

  1. Author: what do you know about the author of the book?
  2. Audience: who were the recipients
  3. Occasion and purpose: what situation prompted the author to write the book, and what response did he seek to elicit?
  4. Organization: how is the book structured, and how do the parts fit together?
  5. Themes: what is the big idea of the book, and what are the main theological themes that develop that idea?

Now here’s the beauty of the expository book series: once you begin your series you won’t have to go back and redo this big picture work for each sermon. That doesn’t mean you won’t shake the whole tree from time to time. But now you can focus more of your attention on the branches, twigs, and individual leaves–the details of your preaching text and immediate context.

Again, that doesn’t mean you won’t continue to grow in your understanding of the broader literary context. As you study the parts you will continue to refine your understanding of the whole. But in general you’ll be happy to know your next preaching text comes with batteries included. Or, to put it another way, each new text comes preloaded with the necessary context. Now the task becomes one of understanding the text and relating it back to the context.

The Topical Sermon

Understanding the big picture is extremely (and at the risk of being redundant, let me say it again–extremely) important when preaching a topical sermon.

Topical sermons are notorious for their abuse of texts. In a topical sermon you are pulling in verses from multiple books of the Bible. Each of those verses has a literary context. If ignored the results are often disastrous.

That’s why topical sermons are actually the most difficult to do well, because they require the greatest amount of Bible knowledge and contextual consciousness.

Mastering Biblical Content

Be encouraged. As you grow in your mastery of biblical content, you won’t be able to come to individual texts without bringing the context with you.

If you decide, for example, to preach a single sermon on the Christian and the armor of God from Ephesians 6:10-17, your Bible-saturated brain will immediately download the information you need to get your contextual bearings. Within a matter of seconds, you will recall the author, audience, purpose, themes, and organization of Ephesians.

So make it your ambition over time to master more and more of the Bible.

Here’s a suggestion I give to my young, undergraduate homiletics students: pick one book of the Bible and master it. Make it yours to the point that if you were cut you would bleed the contents of that book. Then, as God gives you opportunities to preach single sermons here and there, your default should be to preach from that book since you already know the context of each unit. Then add another book. Now you have two books to choose from when given the opportunity to preach.

Zoom In and Out

Finally, in the real world of sermon preparation, it is not a sin to have some level of familiarity with your preaching text before branching out to explore the broader literary context. I think it is natural (and perhaps even beneficial) to have some level of familiarity with your preaching text before zooming out.

In the world of Google Maps, there are times when you start with a particular house and zoom out, and there are times when you start with a county or neighborhood and zoom in. The important thing is that you’re getting both vantage points.

The reality is this: both perspectives (macro and micro) are vital, and neither should be overlooked as you prepare to preach on a particular passage.

There’s a sense in which the approach should resemble something of a sanctified dance with the text–the preacher moving back and forth, in and out, near and far.

But, as a general rule, if you’ve got your text, but you’re not sure where to begin, the first thing you should do is shake the whole tree.

Question: Which direction do you tend to move in as you prepare your sermons? Do you have a preference?

 

 

Knowing how to apply an ancient text of Scripture to a contemporary audience can be a risky enterprise. There are many “dangers, toils, and snares” along the pathway.

There are two dangers in particular that we need to avoid:

  1. There is the danger of applying the text in a generic and predictable way. You know, “Read your Bible and pray and tell others about Jesus.” These kinds of applications are often like water off a duck’s back.
  2. There is also the danger of reading my own applications into the passage and in the process missing, eclipsing, or, even worse, contradicting the applications that come out of the passage.

Thankfully, there is a relatively simple (yet often overlooked) way of avoiding these dangers. Here it is–let the text itself supply the applications by stepping back and examining the immediate and/or broader literary contexts. I said it was simple. No rocket science here. Just basic hermeneutics. But I’m surprised at how often the context is ignored in application.

Here are five steps to keep you safe and scriptural in your applications.

The Process

1. Study your text and isolate the timeless truth.

Let’s say my text is 1 Peter 2:11:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.

In this case the central command to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” is clearly timeless.

2. Don’t jump to the applications that come immediately to your mind.

At this point I’m asking, “How do I apply this command to ‘abstain from the passions of the flesh’ to my audience”?

Good and necessary question. But our tendency is to immediately import our own contemporary context back into the biblical text.

For example, Jack Eswine comments on v. 11,

Because sexual temptation is on the mind personally and culturally, we use our sermon from this passage to address the passions of pornography that wage war against our souls. (Preaching to a Post-Everything World)

Not a problem, right? Not necessarily. But there’s something else we need to do first.

3. Take the time to find out if and how the original author applies the timeless truth in the broader literary context.

Eswine remarks,

While this discussion [on sexual temptation] is necessary and helpful, we must first ask the question: What did Peter mean by this verse? What kind of passions were waging war against the souls of those to whom Peter is writing?

Asking these questions shows us that Peter does not address sexual sin in his letter. We reread his letter and realize that by passions that wage war against the soul, Peter had things in mind like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, suffering for sinning, relational bullying, and revenge.

4. Give serious consideration to the possibility of applying the original concerns of your preaching text to your contemporary audience.

So before I jump to applications related to sexual immorality and uncleanness, I am going to consider addressing concerns like deceit and envy.

5. Extend the applications beyond the text or context based on your knowledge of contemporary issues and concerns.

Now go back to and explore your initial thoughts for application. But be sure to always distinguish between a “far” application and a “near” application:

It is not wrong to address sexual temptation as a far application, but doing so as a near application eclipses the wisdom the Bible has to offer. While other passages, such as the Corinthian letters, address sexuality in a near way, Peter’s letter helps us round out our understanding by being equally aware of how malice, hypocrisy, or revenge views for our affections.

The Benefits

What are the benefits of exploring the near applications of a text first?

1. It keeps you from being narrow minded in your applications.

It is always tempting as a preacher to deal only with hobby horses and address only those issues that you personally are struggling with or know others are struggling with. Giving sufficient attention to the context gets you to think more broadly and, therefore, affect a wider audience. If not, it is possible that certain categories of people and their struggles are entirely overlooked.

2. It gives you suggestions for applications you might never think of otherwise.

Here’s the flip-side benefit of factoring the context into your applications–it keeps you from succumbing to a “felt-needs” kind of preaching that only deals with what you or your listeners think they need to hear. Is it possible that God has insight into our true needs and that those needs are revealed through a close examination of the text in its context? Be careful not to “eclipse” (as Eswine puts it) God’s wisdom in your applications.

3. It gives contextual weight to your applications.

When you can show your listener how both the principle and the application come out of the text, that’s powerful. It’s powerful because it’s scriptural. It’s just another way to show them that your ear is first and foremost bent to the biblical text.

 

Questions: Can you think of other benefits to this process of exploring the context in order to arrive at your applications? What are some of the challenges involved in this process?