Getting the Gold from the Text
How to capitalize on the inexhaustible riches of Scripture in your preaching without sounding like a Bible commentary.
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Foundational to all good exposition is the conviction that where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard. In a generation demanding a "now" word from God, as though that would be in some way separate from, or even superior to, the living and enduring Word of Scripture, the expositor believes that everything God has said he is still saying. The preacher's task is not to try to make the Bible relevant; it is relevant, precisely because it is the living Word of the unchanging, present-tense God. Nor is the task to "do something with the Bible," so as to make it palatable to the contemporary scene. Rather, the task is to let the Bible do something with the preacher, so its truth is incarnated in the expositor's life, as well as words, which become the channel of its powerful message to the hearers.
Such foundation principles are derived not only from classic biblical, theological propositions about the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of Scripture, but from the logical derivative that such a revelation will also provide its own authoritative key to its interpretation and usage. If the Bible is God preaching God to us, then, as has often been said, the Bible is an interpretation. Our part is to be willing both to discover and apply it. We must be prepared to preach the Bible the Bible's way.
That means being governed by the way in which God has put the Bible together, as 66 separate but closely integrated units of composition, each with its own specific purpose and major themes. Each constituent sentence of each paragraph or chapter is carefully constructed to play its own role to convey its divinely-intended meaning, in relationship to all the other sentences around it. The same pattern is true of the individual words within each sentence, in their order and emphases, as well as their meaning, so that nothing can be changed without the probability of a change of understanding. It is the same principle that underlies accurate Bible translation work.
These basic convictions in turn lead to the expositor's concern over the purpose and direction of the text, its context in the book of which it is a part and of the Bible as a whole, the distinctive features of the literary genre to which it belongs, and the nuanced meaning of individual words, metaphors, rhetorical devices, and so on. For the expositor's challenge is always to preach his text as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," and that is a much harder tightrope to walk than we often recognize.
At Proclamation Trust conferences, a number of "instructions" have been devised and developed to enable participants to sharpen their Bible-handling skills, so that the text is attentively heard and faithfully explained.
We might describe observation as learning to listen by opening our eyes. The problem with a written text, increasing with its familiarity, is the skim-read approach that lacks attention to detail. The Bible is often read publicly and studied privately with nothing more than a wash-over effect. A general idea is gained of its contents, but acquaintance with its meaning is bland and superficial. To be good expository preachers we have to cultivate the skill of reading with our antennae up, to practice not just textual analysis, but the dying art of listening intelligently to an urgent and meaningful communication as the living God addresses us in his Word.
One way to develop this is to read looking for the surprises. What is there in the text that prompts the question Why? Why does he say that? Why does he say it in those words? Why does he say it here? Anything that pulls me up with the realization that I would not have put it in those terms, or which challenges my presuppositions by conflicting with my usual way of thinking, anything like that will help me to observe what the text is actually saying.
Like a lens sharpening its focus, careful observation enables the reader to see beneath the immediate surface meaning of the words and to begin to grapple with their intended purpose. That in turn will produce clarity in exposition that gives the sermon an edge to penetrate beyond confused half-understandings and generalized notions. It will enable the richness and uniqueness of the detail of a particular passage to have its intended effect, and when that happens, the Bible really does speak.
Our framework is the enemy of such accuracy. The danger is that certain words in the text will merely trigger ideas in the preacher's memory-bank that will then be downloaded and uncritically included in the sermon. While it is inevitable that every preacher will have a unique framework (of theological position, personal experiences, cumulative knowledge, prejudices, and so on), unless the Bible text is questioning the framework every time a passage is under examination, the preaching will soon become a predictable reflection of what the preacher has said many times before. And preaching like that does not challenge the church and will not change the world. It becomes impository of the preacher's world upon the biblical text, rather than expository of the fundamental meaning with all its unsettling and disturbing challenges to our inherently worldly and fallen ways of thinking.
As we consider the context of a text, we first need to look at the immediate contextual setting to establish clarity of meaning. Many mistakes are made by taking a verse or paragraph out of its immediate context and treating it as though it were an isolated, unconnected unit of thought. For example, at times in Christian experience the great assurances of Romans 8:28, of God working everything together for the good of his loved ones, can seem to ring somewhat hollow. But when we see that verse 29 defines the good as "being conformed to the likeness of his Son," the verse is full of promise again. To set the text in its context will rescue it from becoming merely the preacher's pretext.
Then there is the matter of the wider book context, trying to work out how this particular passage fits with the rest of the book and what specific contribution it is making to the overall purpose of the book, the "melodic line," as it has been called. This has been termed "travelling to Corinth," a principle noted from the fact that 1 Corinthians 13, perhaps the most anthologized "purple passage" of the whole New Testament, is actually in its book context a stinging rebuke and indictment of the Corinthian church. What did it mean to them then? That is the question that has to be asked and answered first in every piece of biblical study, if ever preacher and hearers are to stand a chance of working out what it will mean for us now. How does its inclusion here, and in these terms, help forward the writer's purpose? What does it add, or clarify, or correct?
The third level is the whole Bible context, which leads us into the realm of biblical and theological reflection as the expositor compares Scripture with Scripture and seeks to ascertain how the passage under study contributes to the whole in its own unique way. Seeing the whole Bible as one book by one divine author, though written through various different human servants, means we shall recognize that the middle page dividing the two testaments from each other is the only uninspired page in the whole book.
The principle of progressive revelation not only points to Christ as the center and culmination of all the Old Testament, but establishes the New as the fulfilment motif, so that we see the teaching of Christ and his apostles as the normative control on our understanding of all that preceded him. This also encourages us to reflect on how the perspective of the whole sweep of salvation-history impacts and illuminates our understanding of a specific incident or unit.
Application is the purpose that lies behind all this hard work on context. It is never simply for reasons of theoretical or academic correctness that we need to explore the wider field. Rather, it is because working out the meaning and purpose of the text in its various contexts enables relevant application to become much more obvious. It also increases our confidence that we are cutting with the grain of the wood, working with the text as God intended. Much faithful exposition remains at the level of an exegetical lecture rather than crossing the bridge into the world of the contemporary hearers, because it is not contextualized.
Ironically, almost every competent contemporary preacher knows the unchanging text must be contextualized into the modern world, but the great mistake that is often made is to start at our end of the process. This ensures that our contemporary questions and presuppositions are imported into the text, but they may have little to do with the original author's intention. We may as well criticize the Bible for not teaching the laws of nuclear physics as for not answering the spiritual whims and fancies of the 21st century. The good expositor learns to let the Bible ask the questions, which, since they are God's questions, are far more important and immeasurably more significant than any we could ever pose. To do the contextual work at the Bible's end is to ensure that the unchanging text is truly heard in the modern world.
This biblical method of application also delivers both preacher and hearers from the tyranny of the currently fashionable norms of our particular evangelical subculture. So often application is mass-produced in "bolt-on" forms from our current orthodoxies. These are usually in the form of "we ought to … are you?" and develop quickly into legalism and soul-less duty. Grace is effectively evacuated from a ministry emphasis on doing more Christian things (giving, praying, witnessing), and hearers soon become adept at screening out the all-too-predictable challenges.
Successful, life-changing application is launched from the text and flies under the radar screen to lodge itself in the response center of the listener, with a surprise sense of "So that's what it means." The mind is then persuaded of the truth, and the heart is softened to receive and put it into practice. Finally, the will is energized to be obedient and to make the life change in the power of the Holy Spirit, which that same Spirit has been communicating through the Word.
5. Literary Genre
We must attend to the literary genre of the material we are preaching. We need to identify the different methodologies of biblical genres and to work with them in the presentation of the sermon. All too often, we have put every text through a particular stylistic or theological mincing machine and laid out its doctrinal content in an identical way, irrespective of whether the original was poetry or prose, proverb or parable. This can become both abstract and boring, and it gets expository preaching a bad name. It also does a grave disservice to the God of the Bible, whose love of variety and ingenuity, reflected in the physical creation, is not likely to be less evident in his inspired, written revelation. So the expositor needs to work with the literary distinctives as God has given them and not try to iron them out into a standard three-point sermon. We will learn to value the intricate arguments and verbal precision of an epistle, the twist in a parable, the punch line of a gospel pronouncement story, the provocation of a wisdom saying, the turning point of a narrative, the multiple fulfilments of a prophecy, or the emotive, affective ingredients of a poem.
At Proclamation Trust we do not major on homiletics, since in Phillips Brooks' definition preaching is "truth through personality," and every personality will arrange and present the contents with a proper individuality. Effective expository preaching finds its origin and power not so much in clever construction as in detailed, obedient listening to God's voice in the text. The Bible really is to be in the driving seat, dictating the content of the message, its shape, and its contemporary application.
In serving God's Word in this way, we come to realize that the Bible is a book about God long before it is a book about us, and that its strongest relevance is to teach us his unchanging nature. There will be parallels between his Old and New Covenant dealings with Israel and the universal church. There will also be similarities between ourselves and the men and women we meet in the Bible's pages, but we are not the focus of the story, and we are not to read ourselves into each and every circumstance or experience. Verse-by-verse exposition seeks to guard and propagate these great revelatory distinctives to the glory of God and for the benefit of his people and the lost world.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!