Leaf Looking or Tree Shaking? Text, Context, and Sermon Preparation

June 21, 2016

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?



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.

7 responses to Leaf Looking or Tree Shaking? Text, Context, and Sermon Preparation

  1. Great job, Kerry. Love that Luther quote. Got attribution for me so I can use it?

    • Thanks, Mark. The quote is attributed to Luther, and I have seen it in multiple resources (without footnote), but I don’t know where it occurs in Luther’s writings. John MacArthur quotes it, for example, in chapter 11 of Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Perhaps I should have written, “Martin Luther is said to have said . . .” 🙂

  2. Loved it! Loved the quote by Martin Luther. Your advice on “single sermons here and there” is also very valuable (something I have been struggling for a long time). Would you care in suggesting which books should that be? 🙂 I mean which should be the “go to” books in such a scenario (your order of preference)?

    • Roshan, I would recommend beginning with a shorter NT epistle, like Philippians, Colossians, 1 Peter, Titus, or James (in that order). Then I would work on a rich doctrinal epistle like Ephesians or Romans. Those are my thoughts, but I would encourage you to pray about it and ask the Lord to direct your mind to a particular book.

  3. Jonat ha L Nason June 22, 2016 at 9:24 am

    This is a critical factor in sermon construction that I believe is often dismissed as extraneous, particularly for “easier” passages. Perhaps it is a time issue, laziness, or just dismissing the “big picture” because we know it already. Whatever the reason, I suggested recently that the “big picture” is the foundation of the sermon construction process, not just an optional exercise or a good idea. In short, the practice of “big picture” investigation reveals not just the person, character and will of God in a certain context, but also clarifies the “FCF” of the passage. It also illuminates what we are to do about some aspect of our fallen condition, which is important at a time when it is popular to preach solid doctrine without much contemporary application. In my opinion, trivializing this practice leads to theology without practice and practice without theology, extremes that are easily identified in today’s evangelicalism. We preachers should take this step of sermon construction more seriously.

    Great article, Kerry. Great challenge. This is what we need! I’m afraid you’ll see this point again from me though. Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment and encouragement, Jon. I am looking forward to reading your dissertation and profiting from your research. You’re right–the big picture is often the key to unlocking the FCF of a passage. I often tell my students that if they get stuck trying to figure out the purpose or point of a passage, they need to “back up” or “back away” from the preaching unit and look at it from a big picture perspective. In many cases the application (of the theology) becomes immediately apparent.

      I wrote a post a while back discussing this issue: Make Sure Your Sermon Applications Don’t Eclipse God’s Wisdom.

      I wish you God’s best as you head down the final stretch of your doctoral work.

  4. Bishop Omandi Phiri August 4, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    It is amazing how much of the homiletics class students forget when it comes to taking center stage in ministry.thanks for reminding us of the science of preaching. Keep up the good work. Zambian minister