Archives For Practice of Preaching

Students regularly ask me when and how to cite sources in their sermons. There is, of course, no easy, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white answer to their question.

As J. D. Greear points out,

The question of plagiarism in sermon preparation is rather tricky, primarily because we are interpreting a document (the Bible) which has been interpreted by thousands of people for the last 3000 years. Almost everything we say, especially relating to Christo-centric interpretation, Greek and Hebrew linguistics or historical context, comes from commentaries and other sermons.

I think we would all agree that it is wrong to steal ideas from someone else and present them as our own. But exactly when and how to cite our sources is not always clear.

Case in point. As a sophomore in college if I had seen the following test question–True or False. It is wrong to steal ideas from someone else and present them as our own.–I would have marked “true” without hesitation. And yet that didn’t stop me from preaching the sum and substance of one of my first sermons right out of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ commentary on Ephesians without giving him any credit, as far as I remember! I do recall thinking that he said things a lot better than I could, and I really didn’t see any way to improve upon it.

Looking back at it now, I’m sure people must have been amazed by the maturity and depth of my message as a 19-year-old. Perhaps that’s why one of the deacons came to me afterwards and asked me if I had ever considered the possibility of becoming a pastor someday.

All that to say, even if we are opposed to plagiarism in theory, it is sometimes difficult to know how to apply the principles of honesty and integrity within a sermon.

Greear has adopted for himself 5 general “rules” for avoiding plagiarism in a sermon.

  1. If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit.
  2. If I glean an interpretation of a passage from someone, but the organization of the points, application and presentation are my own, I generally do not feel the need to cite.
  3. When I take a direct point or a line or the creative wording of a truth from someone, I feel like I should cite.
  4. When I give a list that someone else has come up with or offer some piece of cultural analysis, I feel like I should cite.
  5. If I hear a story told by someone else that reminds me of a story of your own, and I tell that story from my own life, I don’t think I need always to identify where I got the idea for that story from originally.

These “rules,” of course, do not cover all the bases, but I would say in general “When in doubt, cite your source.” It is always better to err on the safe side and give credit when none was technically necessary. However, be careful that your sermon doesn’t end up coming across as an academic paper full of bibliographic citations.

There are ways to give credit without bogging your listeners down with bibliographical information.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to reference or use Greear’s blog post in your next sermon.

You could go all-out and introduce the material this way:

J. D. Greear (author) posted an article May 21, 2013 (date) at Between the Times (source) entitled “What Counts As Plagiarism in a Sermon?” (article title).

But I think in most cases in a sermon (which is not an academic paper or scholarly article) it would be sufficient to introduce the material in one of the following ways:

In a recent blog post J. D. Greear gives 5 rules for avoiding plagiarism in your preaching. Here they are . . .


One blogger recently posted on this topic and gave 5 rules for avoiding plagiarism in your preaching. Number 1, . . .

To me the key in preaching is that you give the audience some kind of indication (whether general or specific, long or short) as to what is yours and what is not. The thoroughness of the detail given will depend on the particular situation, but the need for integrity remains.


Question: Do you have any rules or guidelines for when and how to cite sources in a sermon? If so, I’d love to hear them.

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?



Preacher, Doodle. Doo.

March 18, 2016

David Prince is one of my favorite contemporary authors in the field of homiletics. His blog posts, book Church with Jesus as Hero, and dissertation on “The Necessity of a Christocentric Kingdom Focused Model of Expository Preaching” are clear, engaging, theologically robust, and yet eminently practical. He’s a pastor, homiletics professor, a passionate proponent of Christocentric preaching, and huge baseball fan. I mean, what’s not to like about that combination!

In a recent blog post David gave three approaches to sermon preparation “that are not usually considered as normal parts of the discussion when one thinks about how to prepare a sermon.”

One of those approaches was “Doodle the Word.”

I use the term “doodle” here rather than “draw” because no one could confuse the sketching I do in sermon preparation as legitimate art (you may be a far more capable artist than I am). Doodling helps me attempt to conceptualize the message of the sermon. I usually have the text that I will be preaching printed on a sheet of paper, and if possible, I prefer to have it all on one page so that I can see the entire text. As I think through and study the text, I simply doodle circles, highlights, lines, and a variety of other things, most of which, no other human being would be able to make sense of, on the paper. Sometimes, I also draw pictures that aid me in conceptualizing the imagery or scene of a given text. Other times, I attempt to write a rhyming verse (I am certainly no poet), trying to encapsulate the message of the text. Putting pen to paper helps me internalize my thinking in a way that a keyboard does not. This kind of creativity in sermon preparation was common with John Bunyan, John Newton, Isaac Watts, and others.

I too have found it helpful to doodle. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising in light of the number of articles and studies confirming the benefits of writing things out by hand.

Here’s an example of the kind of doodling I do when preparing to preach on a particular text.

As you can see there’s nothing truly artistic here (like what the super creative guys over at The Bible Project are doing)–just some boxes and lines and circles. But I am engaging my hand and my head in ways that help me see, and therefore, understand the passage with greater clarity.

The Process

  1. I begin by doing a structural display of the passage. This visual helps me see the passage “at a glance” and discern its organization. It also helps me understand the relationships between the individual clauses and phrases. (Mine is in English, but you might prefer to use the original languages.)
  2. Then I print out several copies of the display for use as I take notes.
  3. The first copy I use to record my own personal observations and reflections on the text.
  4. Subsequent copies are used as I interact with commentaries and other secondary sources. In the example above I used the display to take notes as I read through George Knight’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the NIGNT series.

The display not only allows me to doodle on the text, it also allows me to verify from the text. Here’s what I mean–as I interact with the data and conclusions coming from the commentators I want to be able to see for myself from the text that what they are saying is truly biblical. So I am constantly glancing back and forth between the text of Scripture and the words of the commentator. Can they convince me based on the details of the text or context that what they are arguing for is accurate?

Doodling on the text keeps the details of the text before me.

Doodling on the text keeps me from mindlessly embracing what some guy with a Ph.D. says without Berean-like verification.

So, preacher, perhaps it’s time you doo some doodling.


Question: Do you doodle as part of your sermon preparation? What kind of doodling do you do? Have you found it helpful?



What is the best way to develop the idea of a text in a sermon? Often the idea itself becomes clear to us after we follow the standard exegetical process and consult the standard exegetical resources. But how to communicate that idea to a contemporary audience–that’s another story.

I’d like to suggest that the answer to the how question may be found in the text too.

Perhaps an example would help. Consider Paul’s rhetorical objective and strategies in Philippians 2.

Paul’s Objective (the Why)

Paul’s rhetorical objective is related to his pastoral concern for these believers. He is seeking to correct the natural tendency in his readers to “look…every man on his own interests” and not enough “on the interests of others” (2:4). And his larger concern (reflected at the end of 1:27 and 2:2) was the disunity that this kind of selfishness leads to. And his even larger concern is the damaging effect that this selfishness and disunity would have on the reputation of the gospel of Christ: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

That shift in orientation (away from my own things to the things of others) requires a fundamental change in the way I think. It requires a change of mind. It’s what Paul calls in v. 2 “lowliness of mind” or humility.

Paul’s Strategy (the How)

There are any number of legitimate rhetorical strategies Paul could have employed to accomplish his rhetorical objective stated in in 2:5, “Let this mind [ie., lowliness of mind] be in you.”

  • Paul could have presented reasoned arguments for why his readers must be humble (“for . . .”).
  • He could have cited an Old Testament text to reinforce his appeal.
  • He could have developed the opposite of humility (viz.  pride) to encourage his readers to see the beauty of humility by contrast.

But he doesn’t. He paints a picture of what humility looks like. He employs illustration, particularly in the form of example. Paul goes right to the example of Jesus Christ with these words: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who . . .”

In addition to the example of Jesus Christ, Paul provides three more examples of what humbleness of mind looks like. In addition to referencing himself, Paul points to Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30) as illustrations of humility, or the mind of Christ.

Notice what Paul says about Timothy in v. 20: “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own.” Consider how Paul concludes the section on Epaphroditus in v. 30: “for the work of Christ he was made nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.”

Not only are Paul’s example true but they are also relevant to the topic of humility. It’s apparent that Paul selects these examples and highlights these specific aspects of their example to move his audience toward his objective.

Homiletical Lessons (the So What)

So what does this mean for us as contemporary preachers of Philippians 2 and other texts?

  • Does it mean that the only way (the “inspired” way) to develop the topic of humility is through use of examples? No.
  • Does it mean that the best way to develop the topic of humility is through use of examples? No, not necessarily.
  • Does it mean that if I’m preaching through Philippians 2 the only way for me to develop the theme of humility is through use of example, because that’s what Paul employed? Again, no. The best way? Not necessarily.

So what is the significance of Paul’s rhetorical example for us?

It is suggestive. Ironically, it provides us with an example of how example can be used in a legitimate and powerful way. It reminds us that example is one of the rhetorical tools in our sermon construction toolbox. In other words, not every idea has to (or should) be developed through abstract, logical discourse.

Biographical example is a particularly powerful rhetorical strategy because it is concrete and personal. In the case of Epaphroditus, the fact that the Philippian believers knew his manner of life personally only heightened the power of his example. Instead of keeping “lowliness of mind” in the abstract, Paul brings it down to the “mind of Christ,” and the mind of Timothy, and the mind of Epaphroditus. The Philippians could visualize the concept of humility and would be more inclined to embrace it for themselves when they could see it in action as the beautiful virtue that it is. What is not to like about humility when it is packaged so attractively?

In my last post I talked about the need for our rhetorical forms to be consistent with the message they carry. In this case, the form–example–is very much consistent with the gospel since God chose to embody His message in His Son (Jn. 1:1, 14). Do you want to know what God is like? Look at the Son (Jn. 1:18), who is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). God does not merely discuss His love in the abstract. He demonstrates it and illustrates it.

It is also consistent with Peter’s use of Jesus Christ as an example for believers: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (2:21).

If I were preaching through Philippians 2 I would necessarily deal with the historical examples found in the text. But as I think about developing the message of Philippians 2 for my target audience, do I need to use modern or extra-biblical examples as my primary rhetorical strategy? No, but I think it would be good for us as preachers to take our cue from rhetorical strategies employed by the original author and look for contemporary examples of humility, perhaps those personally known by our congregation.


There’s no doubt that preachers should be focused on the what (message) of the text. But there is much insight into the meaning of the text and into the development of a contemporary philosophy and methodology of preaching that comes from looking carefully at the why (purpose) and how (strategies) of individual texts of Scripture.



(This post is the second in a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.)

Sunday is over and another sermon is in the books. Now it’s Monday and you can take a break, right? Well, many preachers do take a “break” on Monday, but their minds never stop working, never stop thinking ahead to the next sermon. To modify a famous sermon from S. M. Lockridge, “It’s Monday, but Sunday’s coming.” And one of the first questions you end up wrestling with invariably is this: What am I going to preach on?

If you’re doing an expository book series, someone may say, “Well, that’s easy. Just preach the next paragraph. You’re text is already selected for you.” And in one sense, they may be right. As I argued in Part 1 of this series, you should begin your text selection process by simply determining the next consecutive thought unit. But the text selection process doesn’t end there, and it may not be as simple as it sounds.

Identifying the next unit of thought requires some work. You need to pray for wisdom and study the passage looking for its natural divisions. Beyond that, you need to confirm your conclusions by comparing the paragraph divisions of several modern English translations and by consulting the sections in various original language text editions. And just to make sure you’re not overlooking something, you should consult a number of reputable secondary sources (like commentaries and reference Bibles) to compare their outlines.

And even after all this work, you may encounter conflicting evidence. To continue the example from Part 1, if I am preaching from the beginning of 1 Peter 5, some sources advocate 5:1-4 as the next unit while others 5:1-5.

But even if you come to a conclusion about what the next thought unit is, identifying the next consecutive thought unit is not the end of the text selection process.

There are several additional factors that should influence your final decision.

1. What translation are you using?

What translation are you preaching from, and what (by-and-large) is your congregation looking at? If you’re using the NKJV to preach from and the majority of your congregation is looking at the same, well, then, maybe 5:1-4 would be the best choice for a preaching text.

This consideration, however, is probably the least influential for me. But perhaps it would play a small role in helping me make my final decision.

2. How much time do I have?

Like it or not, time is a factor. And like it or not, we can’t always cover what we’d like to in one sermon. (And frankly, in many cases, that’s a good thing, because what we’d like to cover and what our people are able to handle are often not the same.)

In the case of 1 Peter 5, the difference between 5:1-4 and 5:1-5 is not significant. Covering one more verse is certainly manageable.

But in other cases, when the difference consists of multiple verses, time may be a deciding factor in how much you choose to take on.

3. How would the divisions affect the theme and emphasis of the sermon?

In the case of 1 Peter 5, if I preach 5:1-4 I am only going to cover the responsibilities and the reward of elders.

To include v. 5, however, would be to cover the right response to those elders.

So in terms of theme and emphasis, yes, even one verse can make a difference.

4. Who is my audience and what is my purpose for preaching this message?

All of the aforementioned considerations and questions are subject in the end to this one fundamental question: What purpose do you have for preaching this particular message to this particular group of people?

By the end of the text selection process, you should move from thinking in terms of a thought unit (only) to thinking in terms of a purpose unit (see Jay Adams Preaching with Purpose, 26).

For example, if your purpose is to help your congregation understand the role of a church elder, then 5:1-4 might be your best choice. Perhaps a whole message could be preached the following week on 5:5 (informed by the immediate context) which focuses on the believer’s response to spiritual leadership.

However, if your purpose is to help your congregation see how humility should govern every relationship in the church from the top down, then 5:1-5 would be a better choice, because it fits your purpose better. (Keep in mind when I say “your purpose,” I am assuming that your purpose as a preacher is informed by and consistent with the biblical author’s purpose for writing the text in the first place.)


1. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that is not a thought unit?

For example, could I take as my text 1 Peter 5:2-3, knowing that the actual unit most likely consists of verses 1-4 at the very least? I would say yes, so long as your handling of those two verses is done in relationship to (and in a way that is consistent with) the larger unit and not apart from it.

Again, your prayerfully-informed perspective and purpose as a pastor, knowing, as you do, the needs of your particular flock, will guide you in making the final decision here.

2. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that consists of more than one thought unit?

What about the other direction? Can my preaching text be larger than the one basic unit of 5:1-4 or 5:1-5? Absolutely. Because 5:6-11 continues the theme of humility, I might decide to incorporate those verses and preach an entire message on 1 Peter 5:1-11.

Obviously the bigger the chunks the faster the series will progress (“and end!” says your congregation).

Bigger units also necessitate less detailed exposition of the minutiae. That’s not necessarily a problem if your purpose is to do more of an overview of the book and keep the series moving rather than spend a great deal of time bogged down in the individual details.

Personally, I’m a strong advocate for both kinds of preaching. Big picture preaching and little picture preaching are both valuable and should be combined in pastoral ministry to give people a well-rounded diet of Scripture.


So avoid the temptation to arbitrarily choose your next preaching text simply because it constitutes the next thought unit in the book. While that is a good place to start, make sure that in the end your text is selected with a clear and compelling purpose.


Question: What other steps do you take to determine the length of your preaching unit in an expository book series? What questions do you ask yourself? What are the main factors that help you make your final decision?

(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 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.


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.

Frag-men-tar-y Ex-po-si-tion

October 17, 2013

In a sincere effort to emphasize the text of Scripture and to keep their messages biblical, some preachers engage in what we could call “fragmentary exposition.”

Here is the typical pattern for fragmentary exposition:

  1. Break the text unit down into its component parts–i.e. words and phrases.
  2. Take up each word or phrase in the order in which it appears in the English text and develop it as a separate point.

Perhaps an example would help. Here’s a sermon excerpt from Romans 12:1-2 to illustrate what fragmentary exposition looks like:

My first point is Paul’s appeal. Paul begins v. 1 with an appeal. The word Paul uses means “to exhort.” He is not just giving advice. He is summoning the Roman believers to obey. This is not the only time in Romans where Paul makes an appeal. Turn to Romans 15:30 . . . And now turn to Romans 16:17 and let’s look at another instance of Paul making an appeal. . . . You also see Paul making appeals in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 16:15; and Philemon 10. So, then, it is important for us to recognize that the Bible is not just a collection of truth statements. It comes to us and appeals to us to live in light of those truths.

Transition: So we have, first of all, Paul’s appeal in v. 1. Next we have Paul’s audience–“brothers.”

The word translated “brothers” here is adelphoi. It reminds us of the family relationship that believers have because of Christ. This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. For example, turn with me to the letter of Philemon. We have in this short epistle a powerful example of how individuals who were once estranged can be reconciled and become brothers in Christ. . . .

Transition: We have seen Paul’s appeal and Paul’s audience. Now, let’s consider Paul’s attitude reflected in the word “mercy.” . . .

Now, before I offer my critique, let me say that there are several commendable qualities here:

  1. The outline is simple, clearly stated, and (for all you ardent advocates of alliteration out there), it is alliterated. More importantly, however, the outline is derived from the text.
  2. Certainly attention is given to the words of the text, and the discussion that ensues is thoroughly biblical.
  3. Each word or phrase is considered from a big picture, whole Bible perspective.

There’s no doubt that this kind of preaching could and does minister to God’s people. However, there are several significant weaknesses reflected in this approach.

  1. Though attention is given to the details of the text, the individual parts are not related to each other.
  2. As a result, the idea of the passage is not clear. The audience may leave with a good understanding of the meaning of each word but still not know what Paul is saying in verses 1-2. One of our obligations is to show  our listeners how the parts fit together. How does this word relate to the next word? How does this phrase connect up with the big idea of the text? How do these verses fit into the immediate and broader literary contexts?
  3. One significant area of weakness is in the transition. The transition indicates sequence (“First . . . next . . .”) but does not reflect the logical relationship between the points.
  4. Also, the listener gets the impression that each word or phrase is a main point. And although each word and phrase is breathed out by God, it is not true that each word or phrase shares the same semantic weight or significance within the passage. Some words have a subordinate and supporting role to play. Therefore, we must stress the central thought while showing our listeners how the subordinate details relate to and contribute to the big idea.

So how could we make the preceding exposition a bit better? Consider this example:

The main point that comes out of v. 1 is this: Paul exhorts believers to consecrate their lives to God in light of His mercies. The word Paul uses in v. 1 for “appeal” indicates that this is not just good advice or his personal recommendation. No, it is a strong and urgent exhortation to consecration. And this appeal is directed to believers as the term “brothers” indicates. Those who are called to consecration are those who have come to believe the gospel that Paul preaches in the first 11 chapters of Romans. And it is that very gospel that serves as the basis for Paul’s appeal for consecration. Notice, v. 1, he appeals to them “by the mercies of God.” . . .

In this example . . .

  1. The main point is a complete thought representing the central idea of the passage. This is why I always encourage my students to steer away from topic or phrase outlines in favor of sentence outlines (or some combination of the two).
  2. The supporting details are covered much more quickly and succinctly because the explanation is “along the way” to the bigger point. The focus in the exposition, then, is on how these individual words and phrases relate to the larger concept.
  3. There is greater unity and coherence in this example because an effort is made to relate the parts and show how things fit together.

I applaud those who reverence God’s Word enough to take it seriously in their exposition. I appreciate those who want their preaching to be thoroughly biblical. But fragmentary exposition is not the best approach. Fragmentary exposition leads to a fragmentary understanding on the part of the listener. Instead, approach the details of the passage as a means to arriving at the main idea of the passage. Then preach the main idea as the main idea and keep the supporting cast in the background.


Question: Do you see any additional weaknesses or problems with the fragmentary approach to exposition? Or, do you think the fragmentary approach is valid and valuable? If so, let me know why.


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? 



How often do we simply assert our main point in a sermon, read a couple of supporting verses with little to no comment, and then move on to illustrate or apply the concept?

Someone says, “So, what’s wrong with that?”

Well, maybe nothing is wrong with that, depending on the nature of the text or the general knowledge and maturity of the audience.

But in many cases there may be significant problems with that approach.

  1. The Connection Is Not Clear. Unless the point being made is self-evident (i.e. on the surface), it may not be clear to your listeners how you got that point from those verses. Simply reading the verses may not be sufficient to make the connection in their minds.
  2. The Application Is Not Accepted. Unless people accept the stated idea in good faith because they instinctively trust you, they may not readily accept the idea as biblical, and therefore, any applications that flow out of that sermon idea may not be embraced as having God’s authority behind them.
  3. The Conviction Is Not Strong. Even if people do accept what you’ve said without requiring justification from the text, they are less likely to hold that truth with the same degree of personal conviction as they would if they saw it unmistakably for themselves from the text. 
  4. The Teaching Is Not Biblical. The practice of actually showing people from the Bible where you’re getting your ideas from provides wonderful accountability against saying things that just aren’t biblical.

I try to operate by this general rule: If I can’t show my listeners clearly from the Bible where I’m getting a main idea, I’m not going to make it one. In fact, this is how I tend to filter through the commentary literature. The author may have what sounds like a great idea, but if I can’t “see it” for myself in the text, how am I going to “show it” to my listener? And if I can’t “show it,” then I probably shouldn’t “say it.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to show my listeners or that I will show them; it means that I could show them if I had time and wanted to.

Nor does it mean that I have to have a Bible verse for everything single thing I say. There are obviously times when you engage in doctrinal synthesis and make logical extrapolations and applications. There are also times when you have to assume the basis for certain statements due to time constraints or other considerations. But in general my default should be to show from the text whenever possible and not just tell, especially when it comes to my main ideas.

Allen Ross in Creation and Blessing writes,

Too many so-called expositors simply make the one central idea the substance of their message. The narrative may be read or retold, but the sermon is essentially their central expository idea–it is explained, illustrated, and applied without further recourse to the text. This approach is not valid exegetical exposition. In exegetical exposition, the substance of the exposition must be clearly derived from the text so that the central idea unfolds in the analysis of the passage and so that all parts of the passage may be interpreted to show their contribution to the theological idea. (47)

In other words, we must labor to help people connect the dots. We must show them how we arrived at the general idea from the particulars of the passage. It is not safe to assume that people will see or make the connections on their own. So show them. Don’t just tell them.


In a recent Preaching Points podcast Jeffrey Arthurs argues that the exegetical idea is the foundation of an expository sermon.

What is the exegetical idea? It is essentially “a summary of the text.” It is when you “bring all of your exegetical details together and show how they relate to each other to state the dominant idea.”

An expository sermon, then, is at its core the proclamation of this central idea. It has to be that way, as Arthurs notes, because as God’s messengers

we don’t make up this message. We don’t alter this message. We simply herald what God has already communicated.

If you’ve read Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching, you’ll remember that the exegetical idea, as he defines it, is comprised of two parts: the subject and the complement. The subject is the question the author is seeking to answer, and the complement is the answer the author gives to that question. The subject and complement combined make up the exegetical idea.

Need an example? Arthurs takes a brief look at Psalm 133 to illustrate.

David writes,

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

The thesis of Psalm 133 is presented right out of the gate. David is clearly talking about unity. However, Arthurs’ comments at this point are highly instructive and extremely important. Don’t miss what he says.

Most preachers will be satisfied simply to preach about unity from this text, because obviously that’s what it deals with. But we want to go further and deal more specifically with the authorial intention. And the discipline of the exegetical idea will help you get there. (emphasis mine)

He’s right. Our tendency as preachers is to stay on the surface and preach on the general subject matter of our text. But in doing so, we often fail to really communicate the uniqueness of the text and convey the a/Author’s intended message.

In other words, if the author’s intention is a nail and our exegetical idea is the hammer, it is our job to hit the nail squarely on the head. If we don’t, we may still hit the nail but do damage to it in the process. The original author’s message may come out slightly slanted or badly bent.

Here, then, are the two components of Arthurs’ exegetical idea for Psalm 133:

  1. Subject (Question): “How did David extol the goodness and pleasantness of unity among God’s people?”
  2. Complement (Answer): “By comparing that unity to the anointing oil poured on Aaron at his consecration and comparing it to the copious, life-giving dew of mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.”

Yes, when combined the two end up becoming a “long, fairly complicated sentence,” but the idea behind the exegetical idea is to summarize what the author said. In the case of a short poem like Psalm 133, the exegetical idea ends up being a restatement of the text to a large degree.

Why is this exercise and discipline critically important? Because once you have your exegetical idea, you have your message. But if you hit the nail squarely on the head, it’s not really your message. It’s God’s message. And that’s why it can be said that “the foundation of an expository sermon is . . . [an accurately derived and formulated] exegetical idea.”