I have sometimes said that as a preacher, my task often boils down to reader comprehension: what does the text say, what does it mean, and what do you do with it? Of course, in reality, expositing a text is hard work, as can be crafting the sermon itself. The work of sermon preparation involves finding a way to introduce the text meaningfully, wrestling with interpretation of difficult passages, and thinking through applications that are practical and relevant. In Colossians, Paul describes his work of “warning everyone and teaching everyone” by saying, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:28-29).
Nevertheless, even among those who labor diligently in the Scriptures (1 Tim 5:17), there are a few pitfalls that we can fall into if we are not careful. Four questions should be considered before a sermon is considered ready to preach: Have I fully treated the text? Have I fully considered the authorial intent of the text? Have I thought through how the congregation (and I!) should practically respond to this message? Have I committed myself to prayer?
Have I fully treated the text?
One struggle all preachers share is listening to other preachers without the temptation to critique the sermon as it being preached. I believe that most of us really do listen with a spirit of charity. But there are those moments when a preacher is about to preach on a passage that you have wrestled over in the past; there is a genuine excitement. More than a few times, I have listened to a sermon wondering how the preacher was going to tackle a certain issue in the text or on what side they will land in a controversial passage. At times I have disagreed with the preacher’s interpretation or stance on a passage, but worse than this—much worse—are the times they don’t address it at all. These moments are when I walk away most disappointed.
It is easy to take a passage of Scripture, find 3-4 themes, give some supporting Scriptures, and write an introduction and conclusion. Most of us who have preached for some time could probably do it in less than an hour. Many in your congregation could probably do the same without your help. That’s why they are looking to you.
Whether you are a pastor or not, when people sit before you to hear the Word preached, many are hoping that you will help them see the true intention of the text. Most of them are occupied with the daily affairs of life; working full time jobs, raising kids, and making dinner. They might have an hour a day to look at their Bible, but for many, even this is a luxury. They come to the church with the hope that you can pull back the veil, give them a deeper understanding of the Scriptures, and possibly address those issues in the Scriptures that they have wrestled with themselves. You simply cannot do this unless you are willing to dig deeply into the Scriptures; other people can check on visitors and make hospital visits if needed, your first obligation is to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:1-2, cf. Acts 6:1-2).
A couple of simple tests are helpful in determining if you have fully treated the passage. First, look back over the passage and examine whether you can explain each phrase in the passage.
Second, look at your sermon points and examine whether you can explain how they are all logically connected to one another. Though I am unsure who coined the phrase, my preaching professor used to say that sermons are “bullets, not buckshot.” That is, there should be one central idea that the passage is pointing to. If you haven’t found the central idea of the passage, you aren’t finished with your preparation.
Have I taken seriously the intent of the author?
In recent years there has been a return to Christological / Soteriological focus in preaching. This shift, in itself, is a good thing. Several excellent works such as “Preaching Christ in All of Scripture” (Edmund Clowney) and, more recently, “Your Old Testament Sermon Needs to Get Saved” (David M King) rightfully direct preachers to preaching all of Scripture as pointing to the person and work of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25-27). Nevertheless, preachers should still be careful about imposing a preconceived ideology onto the text.
While we should seek a gospel connection in all of our preaching, the cost of doing so should not be divorcing the passage from its original audience and speaker. A recent article published by the Gospel Coalition claimed that the excellent wife of Proverbs 31 is actually wisdom personified, and ultimately refers to Christ, the Wisdom of God.1 It seems hard to imagine that the original hearers of the Proverbs would have ever conceived that the excellent wife was actually intended to mean a man, much less, their future Messiah. Even passages that have a clearly Christological application, often had a meaning for their initial audience. We cannot preach Isaiah 7 as simply being about Christ in the virgin conceiving Immanuel (14) and ignore the following verses about the fall of Aram and Israel before the child comes of age (15-16).
While the Bible as a whole is, yes, pointing us to Jesus, it has a lot to say about a number of other topics as well. The Bible teaches how God’s people are to steward money, behave in their marriages, and structure leadership in churches. Preachers should be faithful to proclaim the message of the gospel whenever they preach, but we should preach each passage for both its immediate meaning (to its original audience) and its role in God’s redemptive history. We all need the gospel, but most of our congregations want to go deeper into the Scriptures as well. This seems to be the point the author of Hebrews is making:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (6:1-3)
In other words, your congregation understands the basics of salvation, now tell them what the rest of the Bible says.
Have I thought through how people should practically respond?
James tells us, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). Most of us have cited this verse at some point, but have we applied it to our own homiletic? In nearly every book of the Bible, there is a connection from theology to action. In the book of Ephesians, for example, Paul spends the first three chapters discussing how the riches of God have been poured out upon His people through Christ (ch.1) and that God has grafted the Gentiles into His covenant people (ch.2-3). Paul begins the fourth chapter by saying, “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” and proceeds to explain how they should live as Christians.
While the sermon should expose what the passage teaches us about God and ourselves, it should also point the congregation how this new understanding should impact the way they live; orthodoxy birthing orthopraxy. Don’t be satisfied with blanket generalizations, instead think through specific ways your passage applies to the skeptics, new believers, complacent Christians, etc. in your congregation. My most recent pastorate was to a small congregation in the southern part of Louisville, Kentucky. Rather than conclude my sermon with a vague statement like, “we must be the light of Christ to our community,” I might choose to say something like:
“Over the past 20 years this community has changed a great deal. After some local plants closed down, many residents have moved away, and the communities are now much more ethnically diverse. Some of your neighbors might speak Spanish or Arabic, some might even be Muslim or Hindu. My question is, have you met them? Have you welcomed them to the neighborhood? or even your home? I want to challenge you this week to get to know someone in your community who is from a different background than you and begin praying that God will use you to minister to that person.”
Whether the bulk of the congregation actually follows through with your suggestion, it may at least make them reconsider whether they are faithfully following the Bible. Of course, applying Scripture this way means that we must also hold ourselves to the same applications with which we challenge our listeners. But perhaps if we are more intentional in our application of the Scriptures, it will make us more faithful as followers of Christ as well.
Have I committed myself to prayer?
Several years ago, I saw a movie where a man brought a lawn mower to a shop to be fixed. No one could figure out the problem, so they brought it to a man who was an expert in lawn mowers. He immediately pointed out the gas tank was empty. A lawn mower can be perfectly built but won’t run without power. The same is true with our sermons if we do not pray. Even if I could string every word together perfectly so that my sermon was like a great symphony, it would have no power unless the Spirit moved in the hearts of those who heard it.
Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5). Though these words are often debated, I believe that Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit cannot be conjured, He transforms people’s hearts as He wills and desires. But the Bible also tells us that when we pray the Father hears our prayer (1 Jn 5:15) and will answer us (Jn 16:24).
So pray. Ask God to give you understanding of His Word. Ask Him to help you to prepare and preach it faithfully. Ask Him to work in your heart that you might faithfully apply the Word to yourself, your home, your listeners. Ask the Holy Spirit to convict of sin and bring about faith and repentance to all who hear. We have no power in ourselves, we have the Scriptures and the Spirit. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Cor 4:7).
Live for Jesus