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Right-sizing

Determining the optimum length of sermon series and preaching units.

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I love the comment at the very end of John's Gospel: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (John 20:25). That's how magnificent Jesus is!

But frankly, I struggle to proclaim all the things Jesus did that are written down. So many texts, so little time. This struggle creeps into a couple key challenges I face in any literary genre of Scripture but particularly in the Gospels. They have to do with the length of a sermon series and with the length of the preaching units within those series.

I recently shared with several pastors a proposed plan for preaching through Luke. The size of the preaching units was generous, yet the plan still required 67 sermons. My plan called for preaching the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 during the Advent or Christmas season at the end of one year. Then, preaching through Luke 3-18 occupied all but five Sundays of the next year. The plan called for continuing with Luke 19 at the beginning of year three and wrapping up the series with a message on Luke 24 on Easter Sunday. I thought it was a great plan, but my pastoral colleagues questioned whether my congregation could take such a long series without a break.

Gifted preachers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll may be able to sustain people's interest in the same book of Scripture for more than a year or two, but most congregations and pastors need the variety that is built into Scripture itself. So how long should my series be? If it is on the long side, then how do I keep people engaged? I have met people who claim to dislike the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. When I probe this a bit, I find that a previous pastor spent months or years in one of those books. The length of his sermon series simply exceeded the length of their tolerance. These are people who love the Scriptures, but they grasped intuitively that a Gospel is to be read through in two hours, not two years.

A related challenge is the size of preaching units. Should I preach all three "lost" stories in Luke 15 together, or should I combine the first two shorter stories and preach a single sermon on the longer story of the lost son? Recently, while preaching through John, I decided to preach through all 71 verses of John 6 in one sermon. Gulp! I did that because I thought the development of Jesus' argument and the choice it forces hearers to make (verses 60-71) was so compelling that I needed to work through the whole chapter in one sermon. How, then, can I cover adequately a passage that takes more than five minutes just to read?

People need to know the story of Jesus, and accomplishing this will require longer series and blocks of text.

I have six theses about the length of sermon series and preaching units (I wanted to find a seventh so I would have a perfect number, but alas, I could not.) I have deliberately identified these as theses rather than elements of a formula, because your preaching context is different than mine and different than the church in the next town. Even within your ministry, the particular needs and questions will change over time. People always need to hear what Jesus said and did, but what is going on within your zip code will dictate how you approach questions related to length of series of length of text. Here, then, are my six theses.

1. People need to know the story of Jesus, and accomplishing this will require longer series and blocks of text.

Both believers and non-believers are fascinated with Jesus. But a decline in biblical literacy and the renewed interest in revisionist accounts of Jesus' life and teaching have created a hazy, shallow understanding of Jesus—who he is, what he did, and what he said. As one pastor observed about the university students he queried about Jesus, "They like Jesus, but not the church.[1]"

This sentiment stems in part from the disconnect between the way Jesus lived and the way Jesus' church behaves[2], but it also results from people's ignorance of the Gospels. People hear snippets about the biblical Jesus and overlay their picture of him with images of a shaman or guru imported from eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. Or, they hear Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman tout the "lost Gospels" and imagine Jesus as a boy who used his power to lengthen a board that his earthly father, Joseph, cut too short while building a custom bed.[3]

More than ever, our generation needs to hear the Gospels preached from beginning to end so they can know the true story of Jesus—who he is, what he did, and what he said. This will require some longer series. Mark's Gospel consists of 16 chapters, but the other three top out at 20-plus chapters. It will definitely take more sermons to preach through Matthew than Philippians or Malachi!

The need for listeners to grasp the story of Jesus will require preaching through longer texts for each sermon. This is a function of narrative. Preachers can afford to work with preaching units of 6 to 12 verses in the epistles, but in the Gospels, we may need to preach 30 verses to cover a whole narrative—a story whose plot has been resolved.

Without a good grasp of how the larger story of Jesus develops, listeners will not be able to see how the various parables, pronouncements, miracles, and gracious acts of Jesus fit together.

2. A good way to keep a series from being too long is to break it into a mini-series.

A few years ago, after accepting a pastorate in the north suburbs of Chicago, I decided to begin my preaching ministry there by working through John. I wanted to lay the right groundwork, building my ministry on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In addition, The Da Vinci Code movie was due for release a couple weeks after I arrived at the church, so I wanted to address the challenges it threw at the true picture of Jesus. But for various reasons, I did not want to spend six months in a row on John—the time it would take me as I had divided the book into 24 preaching units.

Divisions for John's Gospel

Rather than preach straight through John, therefore, I used its natural divisions to create two series. First, I preached a 13-week series on "The Jesus You Need to Know," from John 1-12. Then I took a three-month hiatus to preach another series before returning to finish John. My second series lasted 11 weeks, covered John 13-21, and was titled "Jesus' Mission in High Definition."

Even if I had preached straight through John, I still would have divided the book into two distinct series. John 1-12 is commonly identified as The Book of Signs, since "Jesus is at work in public…showing signs and teaching to diverse public audiences."[4] John 13-21 is commonly identified as The Book of Glory, since Jesus' elevation to glory on the cross is imminent. This latter half of John contains Jesus' farewell instructions given privately to his followers (chapters 13-17) and then ends with a detailed account of Jesus' passion and resurrection (chapters 18-21).[5]

Divisions for Matthew's Gospel

For Matthew, some scholars have taken the alternation between narrative and discourse as the key to the book's structure. Between the birth narratives at the beginning (Matthew 1-2) and the passion and resurrection narratives at the end (Matthew 26-28), there are five sections that each begin with narrative and end with a discourse. As David Turner notes, "Matthew marks each of the five transitions from discourse back to narrative with the phrase …' when Jesus had finished'; 7:28, 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1."[6] This leads to the following structure:[7]

I. Introduction: The Origin of Jesus the Messiah (1-2)

II. The Gospel of the Kingdom (3-7)

A. Narrative (3-4)

B. Discourse: Sermon on the Mount (5-7)

III. The Kingdom Expands (8-10)

A. Narrative (8-9)

B. Discourse (10)

IV. Growing Opposition to the Kingdom (11-13)

A. Narrative (11-12)

B. Discourse (13)

V. Opposition and Polarization Intensifies (14-18)

A. Narrative (14-17)

B. Discourse (18)

VI. Controversies, Warnings, and Prospects for the Future (19-25)

A. Narrative (19-23)

B. Discourse (24-25)

VII. Epilogue: The Passion, Resurrection, and Commission of Jesus the Messiah (26-28)

Working with this rough outline, you could break Matthew into seven mini-series if preaching straight through the book. Or, if you planned for some time gaps between the sermon series, then going with two or three series makes the most sense. Otherwise, listeners would lose a sense of continuity. A two-part series might consist of preaching through chapters 1-13 and then doing a second series on chapters 14-18. For a three-part series, you could divide Matthew into chapters 1-10, 11-18, and 19-26.

There is another way to break Matthew into a three-part series. Some scholars have noted the expression "from then on Jesus began" in Matthew 4:17 and 16:21 as a key indicator of structure.[8] Craig Blomberg proposes this outline.[9]

I. Introduction to Jesus' Ministry (1:1-4:16)
II. The Development of Jesus' Ministry (4:17-16:20)
III. The Climax of Jesus' Ministry (16:21-28:20).

For a two-part series using this approach, the breakdown consists of 1:1-16:20 and 16:21-28:20.

Divisions for Mark's Gospel

Mark's Gospel breaks into two or three natural divisions for pastors wanting to preach it in more than one sermon series. William Lane sees a key break between Mark 8:30 and 8:31, arguing that "With verse 31 an entirely new orientation is given to the Gospel."[10] The first major section of the Gospel ends with Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus' warning for his disciples not to tell anyone, while the second section begins the movement towards Jerusalem and opens with Jesus' first prediction of his death and resurrection. Using this approach, the series on the first half would cover 1:1-8:30, while the series on the second half would cover 8:31-16:8.

More recently, R. T. France has proposed this breakdown into three acts.[11]

Act One: Galilee (1:14-8:21)
Act Two: On the way to Jerusalem (8:22-10:52)
Act Three: Jerusalem (11:1-16:8)

Divisions for Luke's Gospel

Luke lends itself to a two or three part sermon series. The best commentators agree on Luke's basic structure.[12]

I. Luke's preface and the birth and childhood of Jesus (1:1-2:52) II. The Preparation for Jesus' Ministry (3:1-4:13) III. Jesus' Ministry in Galilee (4:14-9:50) IV. Jesus' Journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44) V. Jesus' in Jerusalem: His Death and Resurrection (19:45-24:53)

Working with this basic structure, a preacher could break the book into two series (1:1-9:50 and 9:51-24:53) or three series (1:1-9:50, 9:51-19:44, and 19:45-24:53). As I write this, I am currently preaching through Luke. I will divide it into three series, each separated by a three to four month break. But I will use one title for the entire series: "Jesus and God's Plan for a Broken World." Each series will have a different feel to it. The first series will focus particularly on the identity of Jesus. The second will contain the bulk of his parables. The third will focus on the passion.

Whatever Gospel you preach, weigh the benefits of going straight through it versus giving your people a bit of a break between major chunks of it. If you preach it straight through, creating a different title for each major section can bring freshness and keep listeners from feeling stuck in the same book for months or years. If you break a Gospel down into two or three series and separate these by weeks or months, it might be wise to use the same title that holds the separate series together.

Timing is important. You might start Matthew or Luke during the Advent/Christmas season since that is a natural time to study Jesus' birth narratives. Then, keep going when the calendar turns to January. Alternatively, you might time a series so that you preach the passion sections during the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

However you accomplish it, thinking in terms of multiple series can make it possible for you to preach through an entire Gospel and keep your listeners tracking with you.

3. Once your people know the story of Jesus, you should focus on key blocks of Jesus' teaching.

Throughout my ministry, I have alternated between preaching entire Gospels and preaching key blocks of Jesus' teaching. I have taken congregations through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13), the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25), and the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17). I have also preached series on the parables of Jesus.

Another possibility would be a series on The Hard Sayings of Jesus. Some obvious candidates include John 6:25-28 (where Jesus invites his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood), Matthew 5:27-39 (where Jesus tells his followers to deal with lust by cutting off body parts), Luke 18:18-25 (where Jesus instructs the rich ruler to sell all his possessions), Luke 14:25-27 (where Jesus says his followers must hate their parents, spouses, and siblings), and Luke 16:9 (where Jesus counsels his followers to use worldly wealth to gain friends with the ultimate goal of being welcomed into eternal dwellings).

My mentor Haddon Robinson quips that these kinds of texts would be grist for a sermon series on Things I Wish Jesus Had Not Said! The point is not to preach these texts because they are radical or disturbing. Rather, the radical or disturbing elements have a way of drawing our attention to critical concepts for those who follow Jesus and participate in God's kingdom. F. F. Bruce's book The Hard Sayings of Jesus provides useful leads and ideas.

A commitment to biblical theology may lead you to explore what Jesus says on particular topics such as wealth, marriage, faith, or obedience. The best way to do this is through the exposition of key parables or sayings on a given topic. You can pull together two or three or four texts on a given topic, or you could opt for a general series on What Jesus Says About Life's Big Issues.

Series that opt for a narrow slice of a particular Gospel or that organize themselves around a theme work best after listeners have gone through one or two Gospels and have a good grasp of the overall story.

4. Maintain the tension between breadth and depth when determining your preaching units.

For almost 15 years, I lived 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. I referred to it affectionately as my family's back yard. Whenever friends visited from out of state, I often took them through Yellowstone in a day. How does one cover 3,468 square miles and 237 miles of main highway in a day? I figured out that the best way to do this is to balance breadth and depth. I drove most of the main highways so that my friends could see dozens of major features. Yet, I made four or five key stops at places like Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Fountain Paint Pots, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone so that my friends could explore these areas a bit more fully.

A similar approach works with preaching the Gospels. For example, with the "lost" stories in Luke 15, the three parables clearly go together, so preaching them together will help listeners keep the big picture in mind. Yet, the parable of the lost, or prodigal, son is so compelling that it seems to deserve a sermon of its own. In fact, the parable could be the grist for more than one sermon. Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God reflects a way to break it down into seven sermons.[13] So what is a preacher to do—three parables in one sermon, one parable in one sermon, or one parable in seven sermons? The answer is all of the above. Vary your approach over time and even within a series on a particular Gospel.

Personally, I prefer to preach all three "lost" stories together. I want people to get a good sense of the flow of Luke's argument. If, however, I turn to Luke 15 to address the meaning of salvation or the way that we are to view our unchurched neighbors, then I will tend to focus solely on the third parable.

The last three kingdom parables in Matthew 13:44-52 present a similar challenge. I have preached the three together in a sermon titled "Life in God's Kingdom: Priceless." But I have also preached basically the same sermon by concentrating on Matthew 13:44-45, on the two brief parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl. By working with such a small unit of two verses, I was able to develop the images at greater length.

Even in a series where I tend to take larger chunks of the story, I will work the balance between breadth and depth by occasionally taking a shorter-than-usual text. Sometimes a pericope, or unit of text, happens to be unusually short. This is certainly the case with Mark 12:41-44, the story of the widow's offering. While this story might be grouped with the preceding stories about Jesus' debates with the teachers of the law, so that Mark 12:28-44 becomes a preaching unit,[14] it is most natural to devote a single sermon to this brief but powerful text.

Of course, it makes sense at other times to combine texts that are often preached separately. For example, when preaching through Luke, it seems natural to preach a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and then a sermon on Jesus' words to Martha when he visited her and her sister, Mary (Luke 10:38-42). However, there may be a good reason to preach these two pericopes together. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan is basically his way of answering the question, "Who is my neighbor?" This question came from an expert in the law who wanted to justify himself when Jesus challenged him to love God and love his neighbor (Luke 10:27). Jesus' challenge to Martha and his commendation of Mary has to do with the command to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27). So, preaching the two pericopes together will help listeners see the connection between loving God and neighbor. The main movements in such a sermon might look like this:

I. Loving your neighbor means loving anyone whose need you are in a position to meet even when there is cost involved (25-37).
II. Loving your neighbor means stepping away at times from your efforts to love your neighbor in order to love God first—which in this context is spending time listening to Jesus (38-42).

Variety is the key. Survey the overall terrain, but stop once in a while to drill deeper.

5. Determine what you leave on your desk and why.

Preaching through entire Gospels will require you to preach longer texts; preaching longer texts will require you to leave some material on your desk or hard drive. I am writing this section a few hours after preaching Luke 3:1-20. This is a magnificent text on repentance. But in order to preach it as one unit, I had to leave a lot of material on my desk. Here are some issues that I only mentioned briefly, in one or two sentences, without any development:

  • The origin of John's baptism—proselyte baptism, Qumran, or something new (3:3)
  • Isaiah's "new exodus" in Isaiah 40:3-5 as quoted by Luke (3:4-6)
  • What exactly a tunic is (3:11)
  • The system of tax collection in first-century Palestine (3:12)
  • What kind of soldiers Jesus was addressing since his crowd was Jewish (3:14)
  • Whether Jesus' baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is one or two baptisms (3:16)
  • Background information on winnowing wheat (3:17)
  • Background information on the sins of Herod the tetrarch (3:19-20)

But what kind of grid must a preacher use to decide what to leave on the table? In his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson counsels preachers who have identified the main idea communicated by a biblical text to ask three developmental questions. These questions should be applied both to the text and to our listeners. What we are trying to discover is which question(s) the biblical writer addressed and which question(s) our listeners will have when they read the passage.

  1. The explanation question: What does it mean?
  2. The validation or "proof" question: Is it true?
  3. The application question: What difference does it make?[15]

To be honest, the first time I read Robinson's discussion about these questions, I dismissed it as a mechanical, formulaic piece of busy work. Years later, I realized how brilliant these questions really are. They are all about how thought forms. They are about how writers and speakers develop ideas. Furthermore, the questions are logically sequential. You cannot accept what you do not understand. You cannot apply what you don't accept.

I apply the question to the biblical text to understand how the writer developed his thought, but it is when I apply them to my listeners that I determine which material to include and which material to leave out of my sermon. I simply ask: As I preach this text, what must I explain, what must I validate, and what must I apply? I am trying to anticipate where my listeners will say, "I don't understand that," or "I'm not sure I buy into that idea," or "I am not sure what difference that makes in my life."

Since repentance is a major theme in Luke 3:1-20, I sensed that my listeners needed the concept explained. After all, repentance is not part of our day-to-day vocabulary. So I took some time to develop it. At the same time, I did not see the need to go into a lengthy explanation of tax collection in first-century Palestine. Instead of overexplaining, I simply said: When tax collectors in Jesus' day collected tax for the government, they were allowed to collect extra for themselves. This was their salary. But these collectors often charged ridiculous amounts and found ways to manipulate and even threaten citizens." Then I moved on to the next issue in the text. I could have given a lot of fascinating information about the leasing of tax districts and the details as to how tax collectors cheated those in their districts, but it was not necessary for understanding the text.

As I thought about where my listeners might need validation, I thought about John calling the crowds a brood of vipers (Luke 3:7). This seems a bit over-the-top. So I took a minute to talk about how the crowds would have consisted of religious people who were relying on their religious heritage but who were taking advantage of other people. I also thought about how some listeners would have a hard time buying into the idea of harsh treatment for those who did not produce good fruit (Luke 3:9). But I decided that this was not the place to validate the idea of God's judgment of those who do evil.

Interestingly, I have heard Haddon Robinson refer to this second question, the one pertaining to validation, as the "C. S. Lewis question." Lewis was masterful at anticipating and answering objections about the Christian faith. Today, Timothy Keller is a good example of a preacher who works this question well. His book The Reason for God not only provides good content but models how preachers can approach the most common objections to the Christian faith in their preaching.

Finally, as I thought about where my listeners might need help with application, I realized they needed modern examples of "fruit in keeping with repentance." The challenges John offers to the three different groups—the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers—have in common a concern for treating others generously and fairly without taking advantage of them. So I challenged my listeners to turn from a self-centered use of their time and wealth to help needy families in our community by participating in some specific opportunities we provide to help those in need. I challenged my listeners to stop verbal abuse such as gossip or criticism and to replace it with gracious speech. I challenged my listeners not to take advantage of workers—even volunteers in a ministry situation!—but to give them reasonable pay and a reasonable pace, praying for them and encouraging them as needed.

The bottom line is to be intentional about what you include in your message and what you leave on the cutting room floor for another occasion. Make sure you are answering the questions your listeners will ask or should ask—not just the ones you find fascinating.

6. Reading the Scripture well is a key part of preaching and helps listeners digest longer texts.

Scripture reading is the missing jewel in much contemporary evangelical preaching. Think about the sermon you heard or preached last weekend. How well was the Scripture read? If you were the one preaching, how much time did you spend preparing yourself or someone else to read the text? Oddly enough, we go to great lengths to prepare sermons, but we spend little time preparing to read the text. This is not surprising, I suppose, given the fact that just about anyone, let alone pastors, can read off the cuff. Yet there is a place for the expository reading of Scripture. It can enrich worshipers whether or not it is connected to a sermon, but it especially serves us well when we preach the longer texts in the Gospels.

I first heard the expression "expository reading of Scripture" at a seminar by Reg Grant, a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. He challenged pastors to stop reading words into the page of Scripture. Instead, he told us to look people in the eye and to read the biblical text—a text that we had diligently studied and read out loud at least a dozen times. Grant added: "When you read well, retention is higher. When you read well, people will say, 'I've never seen it that way before.' As an old Arab proverb says, 'Good reading turns the ear into an eye.'"[16]

A few years later, I had the opportunity to read Scripture for Max McLean and receive a critique. McLean is an actor who has received acclaim for his off-Broadway, solo theatrical performances, including his performance of the Gospel of Mark. Not long ago, he performed it at Chicago's Mercury Theater. My opportunity came in a doctoral seminar on preaching. Our professor Haddon Robinson invited McLean to spend a day with us and critique our reading. I would like to say that I impressed McLean with my stellar reading of the biblical text assigned to me. But he gently scolded me and the others in our seminar for reading the text in a way that reflected little preparation.

Like Reg Grant, McLean advocates eye contact. He remarked, "The eyes are the window to your soul. So, before reading a text publicly, read it through at least eight times so that you know it very well. If you do not know it well, you will not be able to maintain eye contact."[17]

But eye contact is only one payoff for careful preparation on the part of the Scripture reader. Passionate delivery of your reading is another benefit. Listeners need to hear the fear in a word like afraid. They also need to hear the different voices in the text. McLean observes: "A simple pause after a 'he said' or 'Jesus said' will help listeners distinguish between the narrator's voice and the character's voice." Without careful preparation, preachers or others who read Scripture can do "an extraordinary amount of subtle damage, sending a subconscious message that Scripture reading is not important."

Every portion of Scripture, whether long or short, deserves to be well-read. Yet this is even more pressing when a preacher has a longer text from the Gospels. Reading a Gospel selection well can help listeners digest the words and concepts that a preacher may not take time to explain due to the length of the selected text.

Whenever I discuss Scripture reading with pastors, three questions get raised. The first question is, how much of a long text should I read? Do I read it all, or can I simply read key parts of it? My preference is to read the entire passage word-for-word. But when a preacher has reason to keep a long text together, such as John 6:1-71, or combine a couple of related stories, such as in Mark 5:1-43, it may be necessary to summarize parts of the story and read only the dialogue or the key statements made by the narrator. So summarize well and read well.

A second question is, when should I read the text? Should I read it all at the beginning of my sermon, or should I read the various parts of the text as the sermon progresses? I like to vary my approach. Sometimes I read an entire passage or have someone else read it at the beginning of my sermon—either before or after the sermon's introduction. This allows people to hear the whole account as it was written. This cultivates a reverence for the Scripture and challenges people to listen. I do not buy the idea that it gives away the ending; most people know the ending already. There is something satisfying and stirring about hearing the ending to a story we have heard several times before.

There are times when I want to read the text in sections as the sermon progresses. With this approach, I will often weave my explanatory comments into the reading. The downside is that listeners do not hear the whole account all at once. Still, carefully crafted, carefully timed comments may reveal rather than obscure the flow of a story or a teaching of Jesus. On occasion, I will even read an account at the end of a sermon. The benefit is that it keeps the passage intact, yet it allows listeners to hear the account after it has been explained to them and after they have been exhorted by it.

A third question is, who should read the Scripture? Should preachers reserve this for themselves, or should they involve others in the reading? Once again, both approaches are legitimate. It is a matter of preference. By reading it ourselves, we can demonstrate how much we treasure the Scripture through a passionate, accurate reading of it. Alternatively, by assigning the reading of Scripture to someone else, preachers can make use of the gifts of others, thereby demonstrating the unity of believers. If you listen to a sermon by Timothy Keller delivered at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, you will be moved by the readings of Scripture done by men and women who are part of the congregation. Whether or not your congregation has such high caliber readers—some of whom are trained in theater—you can bring the best out of the readers you select by spending time listening to them read and then coaching them before your worship services arrive.

Occasionally, you can even combine approaches and invite readers to read with you. I did this recently when I preached on Luke 1:39-56, covering Elizabeth's blessing of Mary and Mary's song. I served as the narrator, reading verses 39-42a, 46a, and 56. Then, I invited a middle-aged woman to read Elizabeth's blessing in verses 42b-45. Finally, I asked a 14-year-old girl who possessed poise and good reading skills to handle Mary's Magnificat in verses 46b-55. Hearing the words of Mary read by a young lady who was roughly Mary's age when she gave birth to Jesus was stunning. The entire reading of the text was so moving that I was tempted to sit down when we had finished! But I am confident that my sermon was better simply because listeners had seen the text through our reading of it.

Preaching the Gospels will require some longer-than-usual texts and longer-than-usual sermon series. But working with the above six theses can help you plan series and preach sermons that give people a fine grasp of the overall good news of Jesus—who he is, what he did, and what he said.

1. This line comes from the title of Dan Kimball's book, They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

2. Ibid, 37.

3. See Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage Books, 2003) and Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) and Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). The story about the boy Jesus lengthening the board appears in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas 13:1-2. Several good evangelical assessments of the "lost Gospels" are available. Two of the most helpful are Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) and C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

4. Gary M. Burge, John, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 41.

5. Idem.

6. David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 9-10.

7. The outline I have presented uses simple chapter divisions. For the exact chapter and verse divisions, see Carson EBC, 50-57; Turner, vii-viii, 8-10.

8. Turner, Matthew, 9.

9. Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 49.

10. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).

11. R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), vii-viii. The heading and prologue (1:1-13) would obviously be incorporated into the first series.

12. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 43-48. Cf. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 7-11 and Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 25-29.

13. Timothy Keller's chapter titles could work as sermon titles: "The People Around Jesus," "The Two Lost Sons," "Redefining Sin," "Redefining Lostness," "The True Elder Brother," "Redefining Hope," and "The Feast of the Father" (The Prodigal God [New York: Dutton, 2008], VII-IX).

14. David E. Garland groups these stories together in Mark, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 475-486.

15. Adapted and summarized from Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 75-96, 102-103.

16. Reg Grant, "The Public Expository Reading of Scripture," RHMA Church Planting Conference, Morton, Illinois, (4-25-92).

17. Max McLean made this statement and those that follow in a doctoral seminar in preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), (1-26-98).

Steve Mathewson is pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Libertyville, Illinois, and teaches preaching for the doctoral programs at Denver Seminary and Western Seminary, and the Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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Steven Mathewson

July 16, 2012  12:47pm

Steve, I meant to say "especially gifted." No, the rest of us are not bad at all! But in my opinion, very few preachers can engage a congregation for 2-3 years in the same book without seeing their listeners' interest wane. I think there's a bigger problem, though. A pastor who takes 3 years to get through Romans or 1 Samuel may not be helping his people think through the flow of the Bible's storyline and its theology. D. A. Carson talked about this several years ago at a Desiring God conference. This is a generality, but the "micro" approach (2-3 years in the same book) seems to fit pastors who like systematic theology and want to slow down to a handful of verses each Sunday to mine the theological topics. A "macro" approach (larger passages, 2-3 books in a year)fits those who want their people to see the big picture and follow the contours of the passages in a book of Scripture. Maybe the wisest approach is to do both "macro" and "micro." I'm thankful that you preach through books!

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STEVE ZIMMER

July 10, 2012  5:41pm

"gifted" pastors like John Piper... most pastors need the variety that is built into Scripture itself? That is precisely why I preach through books for more than a year or two because you find such great variety in each book especially the gospels. It is because folks these days are so biblically illiterate that we need to spend longer on passages. Are the rest of us really that bad? :)

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Brian Larson

July 02, 2012  12:32pm

Stephen, Touche! :)

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Richard Cameron

July 02, 2012  11:18am

First class article. Very helpful and has given me much to think about. I particularly liked the section on reading the scriptures in public. This is often done very poorly and is a timely reminder.

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Stephen Nordbye

July 02, 2012  11:14am

I might get to reading the article because of its practicality. However 13 pages! Too long?! Certainly some irony considering the topic.

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