Podcast Episode 23 | 12 min
Get the Text Right
Meet the Lord of the text, then engage your people with the Lord of the text.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com. I also help lead the preaching team at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Thanks for joining us on Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast dedicated to preachers at all levels who want to grow in the craft and calling of preaching. I’m here with our guest host, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: And as your lowly guest host I serve at the pleasure of the host.
MW: Well, that is true but you are being far too modest. I just want you all to know out there, Kevin Miller is an exceptional preacher, known around the Wheaton area for his clarity and accessibility.
KM: Man, my fishing for a compliment pulled in a big one.
MW: You are a very fine preacher and I …
KM: Even I am overwhelmed. Quit shoveling.
MW: So let me take you back to 1939, Kevin. June 25, 1939, to be precise.
KM: I love it when you use personal illustrations.
MW: Actually, I wasn’t born yet. I was negative 20 years old in 1939. This is a story about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You know him?
KM: Yes, very well.
MW: Okay. He was visiting America and he attended some worship services in New York City.
KM: What did he think?
MW: Not impressed. Here’s what he wrote about the sermon he heard on Sunday, June 25, 1939. “Very forced application of the text, too little gospel, no real exposition of the text. It is very poor.” Then after the sermon on July 2nd, you’d think maybe he heard a good one then but no, he says, “No text, no echo of the Christian proclamation. Rather, a disappointment.” Kevin, do you see a theme developing here from Bonhoeffer?
KM: Wow, that’s an indictment. Well, obviously he wanted a preacher who would seriously engage the text and I think we Americans have a cultural blind spot where we’re so emphasizing practical contemporary application that sometimes we can kind of skim the text.
MW: Well, I think that’s what he was saying. You know, a while ago we were interviewing Dr. Jeff Arthurs, a preaching prof at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, about his biggest concern with what’s going on in the preaching world today. Here’s what he said, this is a direct quote from the interview: “Pastors are preaching from the Bible but they’re actually reading their own conclusions into the Bible. They bring out of the text what they have already predetermined is in the text.” Boom. Another indictment.
KM: Yeah, mic drop.
MW: So here’s the discipline we want to focus on for this episode. Preachers, slow down and get the text right. I mean, we’ve talked a lot about preaching, that it’s more than just regurgitating the text. You need to illustrate, you need to apply it to people’s hearts, and we’ve done podcasts on that. But preaching also starts with a biblical text. Seems obvious, but it must start with a preacher who is willing to understand and submit to the text before we proclaim that text.
KM: So who’s our master preacher today to illustrate doing it well?
MW: We’ve got a guy who does this exceptionally well, Mark Dever. He preaches in the shadow of our nation’s capital in Washington DC, and in this sermon he was preaching on Psalm 119. Let’s listen in to how Dever sets this up.
Mark Dever: Here, the psalmist is describing the way to blessing. Those first three verses are two lines of poetry each, and those lines are what's called parallelism. It doesn't mean simply that they were physically written along the same line; it means they have parallel meanings, that what's said in line one is repeated in line two. You don't have a whole fresh boatload of information coming in line two: line two is restating what line one says. You don't look at the different words to figure out that it's all this special distinct meaning. It's just a fuller way for you to appreciate this. "The day was beautiful, it was a gorgeous day": I've just spoken in parallel lines there. I've said the same thing using two different words. That's what's going on here, and it gives us a fuller appreciation for what he's saying about the law. The same point those six lines are making in verses one through three is repeated in the last line of verse four: "that are to be fully obeyed." His precepts are to be fully obeyed.
The first half of verse four sticks out in these verses. Which one of these things is not like the other? The first half of verse four. It's in the second person, addressed directly to God: "You have laid down precepts." The psalmist ends that merely descriptive third-person reference to God and his laws or testimonies or ways, and instead, he addresses God directly. He says, "You have laid down precepts," and then he returns to the theme of the first three verses: "that are to be fully obeyed." You begin to perceive, then, that the fount of all other blessings is there in God's revelation of himself and his will.
MW: So Kevin, what did you notice as Mark kind of methodically walked us through a portion of this Psalm 119?
KM: I like how he drew out what the text is highlighting, that sudden break that addresses God in second person. All of a sudden I didn’t just skip over that, I had to see that the Psalmist is asking us to radically address God and obey his Word.
MW: Yeah. You know, Kevin, I once wrote a semi-commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.
KM: A semi-commentary, so that people could preach semi-sermons? What are you talking about? Can you semi-explain?
MW: Well, if you’d stop being semi-rude, I will. It was like a cross between a commentary and a devotional guide through the Gospel of Matthew. But we had two really top notch Bible scholars working on this, and as I was writing the manuscript they would keep sending back margins in the text of my manuscript: “Did you get that from the text??? In big red letters.” “Has anyone else come up with that exegesis before?” They really pushed me to stay true to the text. And you know, I learned something about myself from these Bible scholars, that sometimes as a preacher—I think other preachers struggle with this as well—we are so passionate about being relevant, relational, or practical that sometimes we cut corners with our exegesis.
KM: So how do we avoid the danger you just mentioned?
MW: This is one of the things I do, I spend a lot of time just with the text, not with the commentary. So I encourage preachers first of all, spend a lot of time with the text. I’m working on a series from Philippians, so I printed out Philippians. No notes, no verse numbers, no chapter numbers, with wide margins. And I’m spending a lot of time just with the text. You can learn so much by observing, looking at what’s going on, what are the key words. Read it over and over again. Not only with your mind but with your heart, with your affections. Read it prayerfully. Read it faithfully. That can have a huge impact on getting you into the text.
KM: I love what you described. I find my temptation is I feel the pressure of time and I know the weekend’s coming, I’ve got to have a message so I want to rush past the exegesis and get on with the rest of the sermon development. So what I’ve done is I’ve created a list of maybe 12 to 15 questions that I force myself to answer about the text before I do anything else. So those questions include stuff like what is this text about, what is it saying about what it’s about, why did the original audience need to hear this, who in this text is most like my listeners. Those kinds of questions force me to engage the text at that kind of deeper level like you are talking about.
MW: Yeah, force you to slow down and get the text right. That’s really good. Getting back to our sermon clip, Dever does something really interesting that really helped me. He asks a lot of questions as he is preaching through the text. I counted in one of his sermons that we have on PreachingToday.com, he used 52 questions in his sermon. Now, he preaches for like an hour so most of us don’t do that, so he had a lot of questions. But I like what he does, because it slows the preacher down and it slows the listener down, it gives the preacher a chance to say, “Now what do you see here and what do you see next, and what do you think Paul says here, or what do you think the psalmist says next?” So the listener is walking through the text very slowly with the preacher.
KM: It’s almost like a master class. You’re watching the preacher exegete in front of you in a way and you’re learning as you go.
MW: Exactly. You’re learning how to do exegesis, yes, exactly, as the preacher is walking through the text.
KM: I think we do, though, have the challenge that we live in America, which is interested in practical relevance, four-second soundbite attention spans. So as we move into this deep textual engagement, I wonder if it would help us to use the Joel Gregory approach: Then, now, then, now, then, now. So you do some deep text work, the then, then you apply it to now, then you go back and do more deep text work, and then you also apply that to now, and you keep going back and forth between the two. That gives you a lot of time in both then and now, and listeners don’t have to wait for all the now until the end of the sermon.
MW: Kind of like John Stott’s “Between Two Worlds” concept.
KM: I guess so, yeah.
MW: That’s really good. We haven’t mentioned this explicitly, although we both believe this ardently, and that is that the text is God’s word to us, and God wants to speak to us. So that adds some gravitas to this conversation with the living God that if he wants to speak to us first and then our people through the biblical text, I think, Wow, I want to listen, I’ve got to get this straight. So that is really the ultimate goal here when we talk about getting the text right. We’re really talking about listening to God who has revealed himself through his Word.
KM: It strikes me that the text can sometimes become, in our study, a specimen to be dissected. What you’re saying is so important, it’s actually a Word to be heard and obeyed. It’s a relational encounter with the God of the universe.
MW: His Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, so it’s a live thing, it’s not a dead text.
KM: So when you talk about getting the text right, engaging the text seriously, you’re not really talking strictly about scholarship, you’re also really talking about a heart of engagement and obedience with a living God.
MW: That’s a great way to put it. It’s both of those.
KM: One of the questions I’ve added to my sermon prep process comes from Darrell Johnson, and he says, “Have I stayed in the text until I’ve met the Lord of the text.” I find especially for people like us, who have been preaching for some years, we come to a text and we can think, Well, I already know that text. So you have this filter or framework, and until you meet the Lord of the text you don’t get rid of that framework enough to hear the fresh word that God is speaking to his people through that text.
MW: That’s excellent, and that’s a great charge for all preachers to get the text right, meet the Lord of the text as you prepare your sermons, and then engage your people with the Lord of the text.
Mark Dever is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and executive director of 9Marks Ministries.