The Main Point of a Passage Should Not Always Be the Main Point of Your Sermon
Use a sub-point or the author's logic as the main point of your sermon.
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I recall back in my homiletics class the professor instructing us in the art of exegetical preaching. The point of exegetical preaching, we were told, was to find the main point of the passage and then to make that point the main point of our sermon. If Paul's main point in Romans 3 was that all have sinned, then the main point of our exegetical sermon on Romans 3 should be that all have sinned. This is pretty standard instruction in circles that emphasize exegetical preaching.
I'm a firm believer in exegetical preaching. And generally, I think this is sound advice. But is it always the case that the main point of the passage should be the main point of one's sermon? Didactic passages of Scripture have a logical flow to them; they drive toward a conclusion—be it ethical or theological. And narrative passages likewise have a specific reason for being included in a given text. Grasping the conclusion of a didactic passage or the reason for a narrative passage's inclusion in the text is vital if one is going to preach a faithful sermon on that text. But exegetical preaching—as a particular school of preaching—can sometimes tend to implicitly or explicitly insist that the conclusion of the passage should serve as the main point of the sermon. But what if the conclusion of the passage isn't particularly relevant to your congregation?
Serving one's congregation well
There are times, I've since discovered, when preaching the main point of the passage doesn't actually serve one's congregation very well. A few years back our church was working exegetically through 1 Corinthians. The text for the week was 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. In the passage, Paul addresses the sexual license taking place in the Corinthian church, especially among the men. The Corinthian believers were full of spiritual vim and vigor, but they were also quite a mess. Apparently the Christian men at Corinth hadn't quite worked out all the sexual-ethical implications of their new faith. Frequent trips to the prostitutes wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in first-century Corinth, and the Christian men at Corinth were still routinely engaging in the practice. Paul took quill in hand to help the men at Corinth come to terms with the ethical implications of their new faith, and how those ethical implications impacted their sexual behavior. Paul's main point, in a nutshell, was that the Christian men at Corinth should not be visiting the prostitutes.
The main point of application in the passage was easy enough to discern. But as I was preparing my sermon, it wasn't immediately obvious to me that "don't visit the prostitutes" was the most important thing I needed to say to my congregation. I have a good feel for our congregation, and I was pretty sure that none of the men in my church were confused on the issue (the women even less so!). So building a whole sermon around the big of idea of "don't have sex with prostitutes" seemed to me a missed opportunity.
Now at this point, some might—as a matter of principle—insist that preaching the main point of the passage is what a preacher ought to do, regardless of whether the main point is "relevant" or not. "The middle school girls in your youth group aren't visiting prostitutes? Well and good," such a person might say, "but preach the sermon at the next youth group meeting anyway. God's Word is God's Word. We must conform to its message, not conform its message to us."
Well yes, after a fashion. But Scripture was made for the church, not the church for Scripture. Scripture, in all its variegated forms and beauty, is a gift given by God to the church, to serve the church. The church is formed by Scripture, but does not serve Scripture.
View your passage as art or poetry
The problem with insisting that a preacher must preach the main point of the passage as the main point of the sermon is that such an approach too narrowly focuses on the main point of the passage as the only meaningful aspect of the text. Inspiration extends to the whole of the text—the premises and the logical connections that move toward the conclusion. Rather than viewing each passage as a logical proof wherein the only thing that matters is the conclusion of the passage, I think it is more helpful to view a passage as a painting or a piece of poetry. A painting does have a point, and a good poem makes progress toward a conclusion. But the value of a painting and a poem is not located solely in what they conclude. Their value is just as much in how they get to that conclusion. The reason we look at a painting more than once, and reread our favorite piece of poetry, is because we love how a thing is said, just as much as we love the sum of what is said. So too a passage of Scripture. The parts that make up the whole are worth just as much as the whole.
My point in comparing Scripture to art or poetry is not a thinly veiled attempt to introduce more subjectivity into the preaching process. Rather my point is that a passage has value and beauty beyond its singular conclusion. One can make the same point using the analogy of math. I am told (and take it on faith) that math is beautiful. The formulas and proofs, the equations that lead toward an objective answer, all have a kind of ordered beauty for those with eyes to see it. The beauty of complex mathematics is not simply that it arrives at a conclusion. There is beauty and order to be celebrated all along the way. Scripture is like that. If a + b = c, a and b are just as beautiful and valuable as c.
Every passage of Scripture can be marveled at in its fullness, not simply in its conclusion. Taken as a whole, each passage does indeed have a conclusion. And discovering that conclusion is vital for a faithful preaching of the text. But it does not necessarily follow that once one has discovered the primary point of the passage, that one is therefore bound to make the point of the passage the point of one's sermon. Each aspect of the passage—each step or flow in the thought of the author—is itself an inspired thing of beauty. The movement toward the conclusion is as divinely inspired as the conclusion. And in many instances, it may be more appropriate to focus the point of a sermon on one of the sub points that are leading to the conclusion, rather than the conclusion itself. This is the approach I took when preaching 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.
Focus on a sub-point
In the passage, Paul doesn't simply come right out and say, "Stop visiting the prostitutes." On his way to this admonition he makes two profound assertions about the nature of the body. These two assertions serve to ground his primary point of application. First, he insists that the body is "for the Lord" and that the Lord is "for the body." Space escapes me to delve more deeply here, but given Paul's wider Christology, and his analogy about the relationship between food and the stomach, I take Paul to mean that we have a body as a typological foretelling of Christ's incarnate humanity, and therefore our bodies realize their true purpose only in so far as they honor and point toward Christ. (You'll have to check out the sermon for the details.) And secondly, Paul insists that our bodies are "body parts" (i.e., members) of Christ's body. Just as my human body has many body parts, so too Jesus' body has many body parts. Thus what we do with our bodies necessarily implicates Christ, insofar as we are organically members of his body.
From here Paul then moves to the main application. Since our bodies finds their truest meaning in that they point to Christ's true humanity, and since we have become a member of Christ's body through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—therefore our bodies are not our own. They belong to Christ and must be used in ways that honor Christ. Ergo, stop taking Jesus' body to the brothel.
Note especially that the main focus of Paul's logic leading up to his conclusion is that the body is owned by the Lord, and therefore its use is determined by the Lordship of Christ. The body is not simply a shell, or an independent vehicle by which the real "I" navigates life. The body is the possession of Christ, and is organically connected to Christ, and therefore we are not sovereign over our bodies; they are not ours to use and shape however we will. Rather our bodies are actually part of Christ's body; he owns our bodies—not only through redemption, but even more fundamentally through creation.
And it was this point that I preached to my congregation. Paul's logic is powerful when applied to the question of sexual ethics. But it is equally powerful when applied to the question of gender identity and the supposed malleability of the body. The logic of the transgender movement is ultimately a question of ownership. Who owns the body? Is my body my own to do with as I see fit (as the logic of abortion first began to teach us)? Am I right to use my body, to change my body, in any way that suits me, without regard to the authority of another? Paul's logic in 1 Corinthians 6 strongly counters this sentiment. Paul's admonition here is a call to surrender our sense of sovereignty with respect to our own bodies. Which is to say, to recognize that we are not our own. We do not belong to ourselves, but rather owe proper allegiance to another.
How is the meaning of the passage established?
My sermon then, from the start, was framed not as a question of sexual ethics, but rather as a sermon regarding sexual identity. In my introduction I acknowledged that Paul was writing about the unchaste practices of the Corinthian men. But at the outset I clarified that we would be focusing our attention not on Paul's conclusion, but on the logic he used to get to his conclusion, specifically with a view to how this logic informs contemporary conversations regarding gender identity.
The success of the sermon I leave to the judgment of the listener. Regardless, I commend the exegetical and homiletical method. While everything we say about a passage must be consistent with the primary meaning of the passage, not everything we say in our sermon has to be pressing toward that primary meaning. When I encounter a text with a view to preaching, I first look to determine, as best as I can, what the text means. But I'm also looking for how that meaning is established. And from there I take my congregation into view, and think prayerfully about what they need to hear in light of all the truth contained in the text. Sometimes they need to hear the primary point of the passage. But sometimes they need to hear something else from the passage. Something just as a true and inspired—something that speaks specifically to their context.
So I encourage you, as you prepare to preach, to pay attention not only to the main point of the passage, but also to the logic by which the author arrives at that main point. And then preach the truth of God's Word that your congregation most needs to hear.
Gerald Hiestand is the co-founder and part-time director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He also serves as the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. He is the author, with Todd Wilson, of The Pastor Theologian.