Verse-by-Verse Sermons That Really Preach
Verse-by-Verse Sermons That Really Preach
While God is certainly in the details, he is uniquely and stirringly at work in the organic flow of ideas
Verse-by-verse preaching possesses a long, storied tradition. It finds biblical precedent in Nehemiah's reading of the Law in which he gave the sense so that the people could understand (Nehemiah 8:8). It traces its origin to the commentators at Qumran who cited a few words of the biblical text and then commented on their significance. Origen (185–254) incorporated the running commentary approach in his sermons, as did John Chrysostom (about 347–407) and Augustine (354–430). Both Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) preached verse-by-verse sermons. In more recent times, preachers like Harry A. Ironside and Martyn Lloyd-Jones have employed this approach.
What is verse-by-verse preaching? Basically it is the proclamation of a Scripture passage by unpacking one verse after another. The sermon moves through the text much like a Bible commentary does—proceeding phrase-by-phrase and analyzing select words. Some homileticians refer to verse-by-verse preaching as continuous exposition or the running commentary method.
An analysis of more recent masters of the verse-by-verse approach reveals a variety of styles. Harry A. Ironside showed more interest in providing application and illustration than in giving exegetical details. J. Vernon McGee's sermons typified the running commentary method and offered a blend of exegetical insights and application to life situations. John MacArthur Jr., who considers himself a verse-by-verse expositor, preaches sermons which concentrate more on providing exegetical and doctrinal insights than application ideas. Even though MacArthur's sermons proceed verse-by-verse, they cover one unit of thought. Thus his verse-by-verse sermons reflect a sense of unity and order lacking in sermons that settle for a running commentary style. MacArthur also frequently examines cross-references to illumine the verse he is explaining. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones showed as much inclination as any verse-by-verse preacher to probe the depth of the words and theological ideas resident in a particular verse. As a result, he often moved quite slowly through biblical passages.
The preachers just cited represent the more conservative wing of evangelicalism. But two recent mainline preachers, Ronald J. Allen and Gilbert Bartholomew, advocate the use of this method in their book Preaching Verse By Verse (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). In their model, the sermon unfolds like a commentary on the Bible and interprets the passage unit by unit.
The relationship to expository preaching
One of the key issues involved in understanding verse-by-verse preaching is its relationship to expository preaching. Some homileticians equate verse-by-verse preaching with expository preaching. However, it is best to view verse-by-verse preaching as one of the methods of expository preaching.
What, then, is expository preaching? Premier homileticians like Haddon Robinson and Bryan Chappell use different wording to craft their definitions, but they agree on the basic elements that make a sermon expository. Basically, an expository sermon exposes the meaning of a particular Scripture passage and applies the meaning to the listeners' lives.
Two elements are critical. First, both Robinson and Chappell stress the need for an expository sermon to work through the biblical text. Robinson's definition stresses the need to communicate a biblical concept which is "derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context" (italics added for emphasis). Chappell's definition proposes that the expository sermon will "cover the scope of the passage."
The question is, does the need to work through the biblical text require a verse-by-verse approach? The answer is, in some cases yes and in some cases no. For example, an expository sermon on Ephesians 2:1–10 or Psalm 100 can proceed verse-by-verse and still cover the entire unit of thought. However, an expository sermon on Genesis 38 or Revelation 17–18 will require the preacher to proceed paragraph-by-paragraph. It will be impossible even in 30–50 minutes to expound on every word, phrase, or even sentence in either of these texts. So then, a sermon may be expository without preaching verse-by-verse. This is why many homileticians see verse-by-verse preaching as a subdivision of expository preaching.
This distinction raises an important question. Why not preach three sermons on Genesis 38 or four sermons on Revelation 17–18 to enable the expositor to proceed verse-by-verse? The answer is that a sermon must be based on a unit of thought. A preacher who opts to prepare a sermon on Genesis 38:1–11 is not working with a complete unit of thought. In narrative, a complete unit of thought requires a complete story or an episode (a story within a story). The story begun in Genesis 38:1 is not completed until Genesis 38:30.
Likewise, while Revelation 17–18 could be preached legitimately in more than one sermon, the two chapters together definitely constitute a unit of thought as they describe the fall of Babylon, the city of man. If the expositor chooses to preach the entire unit, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, to proceed through the two chapters verse-by-verse. The point is that a commitment to preach through complete units of thought may sometimes lead expositors to preach large blocks of text which will require some summarizing—a paragraph-by-paragraph development rather than a verse-by-verse development.
A second element which is critical to an expository sermon is the application of the author's intended meaning. Both Robinson and Chappell stress that if a verse-by-verse sermon fails to apply the text to the listeners' lives, then the sermon, by definition, fails as a truly expository sermon. Therefore, not all verse-by-verse preaching is true expository preaching.
Strengths and weaknesses
At this point, we can begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of verse-by-verse preaching. Three unique strengths of verse-by-verse sermons deserve mention.
(1) Verse-by-verse sermons dig deeply into the text. They provide an in-depth analysis that feeds people who are hungry to know what the Scripture says. They counteract the tendency in twenty-first century America towards biblical illiteracy.
(2) Verse-by-verse sermons lead the preacher to follow the contours of the text rather than an artificial outline. That is not to say verse-by-verse preachers use no outline. Nor is it to say all verse-by-verse preachers avoid the trap of pressing their material into an artificial outline. But the very exercise of working through the words and phrases of one verse and then moving on to the next will shape the sermon according to the shape of the passage.
(3) A third strength, which flows from the first two, is the tendency of the verse-by-verse sermon to reveal the author's intent rather than to impose an idea upon the text. Walking over the same set of tracks left by the biblical writer is more likely to lead the preacher to the biblical writer's destination.
Preachers who use the verse-by-verse format should be aware of four potential weaknesses. These weaknesses may not be inherent in the form itself. But a careful evaluation of verse-by-verse sermons preached over the last several decades in America shows that the form can be misused.
(1) The verse-by-verse approach does not serve all literary genres of Scripture equally well. Many narratives and certain psalms take a large amount of text to form a complete unit of thought. Preachers who insist on going verse-by-verse through the David-Uriah-Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel 11–12 will be forced to end their sermon (or sermons!) before the full idea of the story emerges.
(2) The verse-by-verse approach sometimes results in sermons that lack unity. Such sermons discuss the details of the text but fail to paint the big picture. That is, they analyze but do not synthesize. Helping people think biblically means helping them trace the flow of the author's thought. A verse-by-verse approach does not automatically produce Bible readers who can follow the development of an argument in a text. Verse-by-verse preaching can obscure the development of the argument when preachers lose their listeners in a pile of details or when they feel free to stop whenever their allotted time is finished. Then, they begin next week's sermon in the verse in which they stopped. But as homiletician Richard Mayhue argues, expository preaching "is not a commentary running from word to word and verse to verse without unity, outline, and pervasive drive."
(3) A third weakness of verse-by-verse preaching—as it has often been employed by American pastors—is its tendency to overload the sermon with raw data and short-change application. Of course, listeners want and need exegetical information—lexical, grammatical, historical, and cultural insights. But expository preaching involves more than backing up the exegetical dump truck and unloading it on a congregation! If expository preaching, by definition, attempts to apply the text to the lives of the hearers, then verse-by-verse sermons must invest time not only in probing the details of the text but in probing its implications for Christian living in modern culture.
(4) Verse-by-verse preaching sometimes slows the preacher's pace so much that a congregation does not get to hear the whole counsel of God over a period of time. A strict verse-by-verse approach may require three years of sermons to preach through Romans. Might it be better to devote one year to Romans, and the other two years to a few other books of Scripture?
Suggestions for effectiveness
In light of the strengths and weaknesses of verse-by-verse preaching, here are four suggestions for using this approach effectively.
(1) Keep the big picture in mind. Remember, you are preaching a unit of thought, not just individual verses. So think paragraphs! Or, think preaching units. Verse-by-verse preaching is a strategy to serve a larger goal—the exposition of a thought unit in Scripture. Even though you move verse-by-verse, highlight the overall idea which the individual verses work together to express. Make a commitment to work through a block of text, not just to stop wherever you run out of time.
(2) Highlight the contours of the text. Don't settle for a bucket of exegetical nuggets as you move from word to word and phrase to phrase. Point out the connections between phrases and between verses. When preaching a verse-by-verse sermon on Isaiah 9:1–7, show your listeners that the term for at the beginning of verses 4, 5, and 6 tell us how God will accomplish the promises he has made in Isaiah 9:1–3. Or, when expounding Matthew 5:38–42, inform your listeners that verse 38 contains what people were hearing, that verse 39a contains Jesus' standard, and that verses 39b–42 offer four illustrations from Jesus culture of the standard he has just set.
(3) Determine which details to cover in-depth and which to summarize. Even when handling three to five verses, a preacher cannot provide a systematic theology on every word. You must think about your audience to know what needs to be explained, what needs to be validated, and what needs to be applied. Your listeners only need explanations of words they do not understand. They need an apologetic only if they tend to doubt a particular statement or concept. They need application ideas when they are unsure of how to flesh out a principle in their everyday lives.
(4) Use verse-by-verse preaching in concert with paragraph-by-paragraph preaching. When preaching through a particular book of the Bible, vary your pace. Some sermons will tackle larger units and will need to move paragraph by paragraph. Other sermons will handle smaller units and can move verse-by-verse. Still other sermons can use a combination of both approaches.
For example, if you have worked slowly through Romans 1–2, then perhaps preach a single sermon on Romans 3:1–20. Part of the sermon may proceed verse-by-verse, and part of it may summarize particular groups of verses. Then, slow down and work verse-by-verse through Romans 3:21-26. Strike the balance between giving people breadth and depth. Preaching through "too few" verses too often will result in listeners who cannot think through the argument of a passage. Preaching through "too many" verses too often will result in listeners who cannot grasp the depths of what the Bible teaches.
An example from Psalm 100
What follows is an attempt to track the development of a possible verse-by-verse sermon from Psalm 100. Notice what happens at the level of ideas. While the sermon proceeds phrase-by-phrase and verse-by-verse, it also maintains a sense of unity. The introduction would raise the question "What is corporate worship supposed to be?" To frame it another way, "How should people behave when they gather to worship?" This question derives from a careful exegetical study of the text. That is, the question reflects the text's subject.
Verse 1 says: Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. The sermon unpacks this verse by discussing the command "shout for joy"; the person to whom this shout is directed (Yahweh, as indicated by the rendering "LORD" in all capital letters); and then the anticipated participants who will fulfill this command ("all the earth").
At this point, a transition to verse 2 will note that Hebrew poetry resembles stereo sound. So the two lines in verse 2 will add texture to what verse 1 says by restating the same concept in different words. The first line in verse 2 reads: Worship the LORD with gladness. The sermon will discuss the term worship, a common Hebrew verb for serve, as well as the term gladness. The expositor will also point out that Yahweh is still the focus of this response.
Then, the second line of verse 2 reads: Come before him with joyful songs. The preacher can note that come is a general term for approaching a person or place, and that this approach is (1) directed to Yahweh as indicated by the pronoun him and (2) accompanied with "joyful songs."
Here the preacher will do well to stop and summarize what the three lines say in stereo or surround sound: Worship is supposed to be an enthusiastic expression of honor to God. To frame it another way, verses 1–2 tell us what to do (attribute worth), to whom we do it (Yahweh), and how we do it (with enthusiasm). Theoretically, the preacher could front-load the discussion of verses 1–2 with this summary. However, to retain the poetic flavor of the text, it seems advisable to let the text build to this conclusion. The point is, the verse-by-verse movement in the sermon shows an over-riding concern for seeing the unity of the text.
At this place in the sermon, a verse-by-verse preacher committed to the unity of the passage will want to do more than say, "Now, let's look at verse 3" as a strict running-commentary sermon would do. Rather, the expositor will tell the listeners that this psalm follows a pattern in which the psalmist follows up a call to praise with a cause to praise. So the shift is from what to do in verses 1–2 to why we should do it in verse 3.
Verse 3 tells us who God is and who we are. Verse 3 begins by declaring: Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us. A pastor who does careful exegetical work will notice that the Hebrew text makes two assertions about Yahweh, both starting with the pronoun he. First, he is God. Second, he made us. The remainder of the verse makes three assertions about us: (1) and we are his; (2) we are his people, (3) the sheep of his pasture. The sermon will touch briefly on each assertion, taking time to develop the sheep/shepherd image utilized in the last phrase. Thus, the three assertions are really the same assertion stated poetically with each one building on the one before it. At this point, the preacher can summarize the flow of ideas so far. The reason for giving an enthusiastic expression of honor to God is based on our relationship with God. He is the one who created us. We belong to him.
Moving into verse 4 will require another transition. The preacher will have to refer again to the pattern that this type of praise psalm follows. The psalmist is about to offer a renewed call to praise. This renewed call in verse 4 will fill out our answer to the question, "What is corporate worship supposed to be?" Verse 4 begins with the command: "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and enter his courts with praise." The expositor will note that a new element has been added in this renewed call to praise. Two terms—gates and courts —point out that a place of worship is involved. So, corporate worship is in view in this psalm. This is the exegetical support, by the way, for the question raised at the beginning of the sermon.
As the sermon continues, the preacher will spend time defining thanksgiving and praise. These terms show that this worship has some substance. It is more than raw emotion. Thanksgiving is public acknowledgment of what God has done. Praise is excited boasting over who God is and what God has done. Then verse 4 concludes with a command: "Give thanks to him and praise his name." The expositor will point out that the repetition provides emphasis.
One more transition is needed to negotiate the movement into the final verse of the psalm. The preacher will point out that the psalmist is now offering a renewed cause for praise. Some additional facets of the answer to the question "why offer this kind of worship" will emerge. The first line of verse 5 declares: "For the LORD is good and his love endures forever." The sermon will observe that the term for signals the movement from what to do to why it should be done. The sermon will now develop the two attributes of God in the first line of verse 5 that motivate the kind of worship described in this psalm: God's goodness and his enduring love. The last line of verse 5 adds a third attribute: God's faithfulness. An astute expositor will see a reflection of Exodus 34:5–7 in which each of these three qualities is prominent.
At the end of the sermon, the preacher can drive home the main idea that has emerged: Worship should be nothing less than an enthusiastic response to God because God is so great! Note that the idea of greatness is an abstraction, that is, a way of summarizing the attributes of God expressed in this psalm—he is creator, shepherd, good, loving, and faithful.
The above example shows how a preacher can and must move from words and phrases to ideas that have an organic relationship.