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The Preacher's Study

The sufficiency of preaching rests on the sufficiency of study. Hughes describes what the preacher needs to do before, in, and around the study. These include prayer, cracking the text, respecting and disrespecting commentaries, and knowledge of the English Bible.


The sufficiency of preaching rests upon the sufficiency of study. I want to examine this by telling you about my process and experience.

The first thing that pastors should do as they prepare to preach the Word of God is pray. I start by spreading out the text in front of me and saying, I may not know or understand what this says, but, God, you do. I humble myself before the text.

In this process, I often remember God's promises to his servants. In Exodus 4:10-11 we hear Moses saying, "I have never been eloquent." God rebukes him, saying, I'll be with your tongue. You can count on me. In Jeremiah 1, Jeremiah says, "I'm only a child." God replies, "Say not 'I'm a child.'" Or in 1 Peter 4:11, "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God." So one of the ways I define preparation for the exposition of the Word of God is that preparation is a 24-hour prayer.

The second thing is what I call cracking the text. This is the hardest part of the process for me. I begin by taking my English Bible, my Greek text (if I'm in the New Testament), and a legal pad. I put those three things in front of me and clear my desk of everything else. Then I read and re-read my text, even reading it out loud as I try to comprehend what it has to say.

I don't open any other tools as I begin. I feel that it cripples my originality right off the bat if I read secondary resources as I'm preparing to preach. I have some good things to say about commentaries, but some qualifications as well. If I go to them as a first step, I don't think as I ought to think. I don't have that raw exposure to the Word of God. I do not read and hear God as I ought.

The eminent Karl Barth gave this advice: "The Bible is like a love letter and should be read in the same way. If the letter is written in a foreign language, the lover will need to decipher it with the aid of a dictionary. But he will regard the toil of translation as an irritating delay to the reading of the letter; a necessary evil, and he will certainly not imagine that he is reading the letter while he's translating it. Therefore" (he puts it in a formal, religious, King James terms) "if thou art a learned man, take care, lest with all thy erudite reading, which is not reading God's Word, that thou forgettest perchance to read God's Word."

And so I spend my time going through trying to crack the text. When I crack the text and discover the theme, then my next step is to look at it from a literary point of view and see what its divisions are. I still don't pick up a commentary at this point. Once I've done that, my next step is to think of biblical parallels, to recall cross references from my own knowledge of the Bible, to consider insights that come to me fresh from the text.

For instance, just a few weeks ago I was preaching Luke 12:22-34, which is against worry, and I realized that worry is a proleptic sin. It's a sin which lodges itself in the future. It's taking tomorrow's burdens and laying them on top of today. That insight formed a lot in my homiletic thought.

I think of any analogy, any application that I possibly can. I run my mind through several categories related to my audience. I ask: What will this mean to the man in the pew? What could it mean to the woman in the pew? What does it mean to teenagers? What might it mean to the widow, or to the single parent, or to the person who is ill or depressed? Lastly, I think of illustrations to fit the text. At this point I still haven't touched a commentary.

My next step is typing out several pages of my thoughts so far.

Now I open my commentaries. Commentaries need to be simultaneously respected and disrespected. It's arrogance to dispense with commentaries. I remember an old friend from seminary who said he put all the commentaries aside; all he needed was his lexicon. Guess what? He sounded like he preached from a lexicon. There's certainly the opposite mistake as well, though: over-referencing commentaries.

I'm working through the Gospel of Luke right now. I read my commentaries and am often corrected and always enlightened. I also have a file for illustrations that I reference. I collect and file virtually everything I read. There are some people who are polymaths—gifted and knowledgeable in so many areas. Not me. I'm just a preacher, and I can't remember everything I read. So I file and cross index it all.

Once I've gone through this whole process, gathered all my thoughts and resources, I write my sermon. In my early years in the pulpit I preached with few notes. As the years went by, I preached with more notes, and eventually have moved to using a manuscript. Why? For clarity.

Clarity is style. "A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." If I cannot explain what I'm preaching in plain, simple English, it is probably because I do not understand it. And so there's a sense in which I read myself full, write myself clear, and deliver myself empty.

We have two services at College Church: at 9:00 and 10:40. After 25 years of preaching, I still get up every Sunday morning at 4:00. I shower and shave. I eat breakfast, pray, and am in my office at 6 a.m. I pray over my manuscript. I do not memorize it, but I ingest it prayerfully, asking God to apply it to my spirit so that my soul, my ethos, will represent the reality of what I say, so that when I stand up I passionately preach God's truth from the heart. I spend two and a half to three hours with my sermon before I step in front of my congregation.

I pray even while I am preaching. Did you know that you can do that? Lord, why is Dr. Scott turned all the way around backward while I'm making this point? Is there something wrong with my exegesis?

That's my journey from the desk to the pulpit. I want to add some words about my study environment and resources, though.

Every pastor ought to have a fine library. When I take my car in to get it repaired at the local mechanic, one of the things that's interesting to me is how many tools he has on the wall. I would be concerned about a mechanic shop where I went and there were no tools related to the kind of job I was going to get.

I have a library with about 4,000 volumes. When Dr. J. I. Packer preached at my church, he said to me, "This is the finest pastor's library that I've seen." Not the finest library, but for a preacher. I have all of the lexicons. I have a vast collection of commentaries, probably 60 on the book of Romans alone. I have all the dictionaries. I do the best I can to have the primary sources available, and I think every pastor ought to have at least the Loeb editions of Josephus and Philo and the Apostolic fathers. I have about eighty volumes of the Loeb library. I have a whole set of the Babylonian Talmud. Probably the book that is most thumbed outside of my lexicons and my Bible is my Mishna. I have standard sets of theology: Augustine, John Owen, Karl Barth.

I try to stay current with the cutting edge of the field today. I read many seminary book reviews. One my favorite things to do on my day off is to go down to my local bookstore, and sit down with a cup of coffee and the New York Times book review.

To sum up all of these thoughts, every pastor ought to be (as Spurgeon said) so knowledgeable about Scripture that his very blood is "bibline."

When I observe powerful preachers, one of the consistent traits I notice is their great knowledge of the English Bible. Now if you have the kind of mind that knows the Bible and the Vulgate, knows the Masoretic text, knows the Greek text, great. I can work through those things, especially the Greek, but my best knowledge is the English Bible. For some reason God still speaks to me in English anyway. So I read and re-read my English Bible.

Lewis once tried to account for the brilliance of John Bunyan. He said that we need to understand that the Bible itself is an education. Indeed it is. Bunyan had his Geneva Bible, his Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety. He penned one of the classics of the English language. He preached the Word of God with power.

We need to be people of the Book if we're going to be preachers of the Book. One can mark this theme from Bunyan through Spurgeon to the great preachers of our own day like Lloyd-Jones. When we are full of the Word of God, his Word informs our words.

Pastors need to be readers. Wendell Hawley, the editor-in-chief for Tyndale House, is a member of my church. He travels all around the country. He once said to me, "Pastor, I am amazed at how little preachers read."

I probably read 150 pages in commentaries and other resources each time I preach. I also read extensively outside of theology. Reading wisely keeps you in touch with culture, with where people are.

After all these years I still spend about 20 hours of study for a Sunday sermon. When I preach on Sunday night, it takes an additional 10 hours. It is a huge investment of my time. But if you don't control your time, then someone else will. So I control my time.

Preaching the Word of God is as grand a call as one can have. In the last century, Alexander Whyte imagined that the angels are envious of preachers. He wrote to a discouraged minister: "The angels around the throne envy you and your great work. Go on; grow in grace and power as a preacher of the gospel."

R. Kent Hughes is pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Disciplines of a Godly Man (Crossway).

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