May 25, 2013

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount Underscores the Importance of Application

What is your view of the significance of application in preaching? If you were forced to put a price tag on “application,” what value would you assign it?

Oddly enough, those who are most committed to saying what God said sometimes struggle to bring the point home applicationally. Others don’t even try.

In the most recent Masters Seminary Journal, Bruce Alvord describes the problem this way:

Some pastors teach as if their only duty is to explain the original meaning of the text they are preaching. They focus their energies solely on explaining the passage and fail to give exhortations to implement the information they have taught. (125)

Is that you? Is that me? Well, before we start defending ourselves and making excuses for why we don’t (or even shouldn’t) give much attention to application in our preaching, consider the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount? Yes, the Sermon on the Mount.

Alvord argues that

if you examine the greatest sermon Jesus ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, you will see that he considered application to be a critical component. If you outline the sermon, you can observe how He valued it so highly that He included application not only in every one of His points, but also in each sub-point. To follow His example, we should not only explain the text well, but also help our listeners understand the present-day implications of that truth. (125, emphasis mine)

Here just one example from Matthew 5:17-19.

  1. Jesus explainsDo not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished
  2. Jesus appliesTherefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

There’s the “truly, I say to you,” and then there’s the “therefore.” That’s the example of Jesus: “Truly . . . Therefore.”

Alvord ends his article with several significant conclusions from his survey of Jesus’ sermon: (136)

  1. “Jesus highly valued application and employed it liberally in what is considered His greatest sermon recorded in Scripture.”
  2. “He included application throughout this sermon, even within the introduction. Every one of His main points and even every sub-point included it–18 out of 18 pericopes.”
  3. “Consider how large a portion of the sermon Jesus dedicated to application–57 out of 107 verses, which is 53 percent.”
  4. “Application was not only the goal but also the main point of His conclusion.”
  5. “Jesus directed His application not only to outward actions but also to inward attitudes. Nine out of eighteen of His applications (50 percent) were directed toward internal attitudes, while the other nine (50 percent) concerned outward actions. Jesus valued both and neglected neither.”

As Alvord notes, even the way Jesus ends his sermon is suggestive. So let’s end where his sermon does:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

It seems application was important to the Master. Or should I say critically important? Do we share his perspective of application, and does it show in the way we preach?