(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.)

FAQS

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.

Conclusion

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 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).