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I Heard What You Said, But What Do You Mean?

The journey from exegetical idea to homiletical idea.
I Heard What You Said, But What Do You Mean?
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Anyone familiar with Haddon Robinson’s seminal work Biblical Preaching knows that in it he outlines ten stages in the development of an expository message. Having spent nearly forty years of my life studying, applying, and teaching Robinson’s wisdom, I find his fourth stage to be the most overlooked and underappreciated of the ten. It’s this fourth stage that links the discovery of the exegetical idea in stage three to the formulation of the homiletical idea in stage five.

The preacher who skips stage four mistakenly assumes that a sermon is expository when it merely restates in updated and audience-specific terms the big idea of what the text says. What that preacher fails to realize is that a text means more than it says. When it comes to the Bible, we can forget the claim that “it says what it means, and it means what it says.” That’s simply untrue. It’s not true of the Bible, and it’s not true of most forms of communication. Between saying and meaning there’s a lot that is left unsaid.

To move from saying to meaning, or from a text’s exegetical idea to its sermon’s homiletical idea, a great deal of analysis must take place if the resulting sermon is to be truly expository. In Robinson’s words, the preacher must analyze the exegetical idea. This is the all-important fourth stage, what he terms the [hazardous] “road from text to sermon.” To help the preacher safely traverse this road, Robinson offers three developmental questions to ask of a text and its exegetical idea—“What does this mean?,” “Is it true?,” and “What difference does it make?”

Interestingly, in his book’s third edition, Robinson takes roughly three pages to discuss the text and idea’s meaning, five pages to discuss its truthfulness, but more than eight pages to discuss its application. In those eight pages, he asks approximately forty questions to help a preacher get at the exegetical idea’s application. Forty!

If I may, I’d like to riff off of Robinson’s idea of three developmental questions, modify them in view of more recent discoveries in the field of linguistics, and apply them to Matthew 4:1-11. Doing so should help us to see how saying differs from meaning and how meaning is ascertained.

Question #1: Where, When, How, and to Whom Does the Author Say what They Say?

“There’s someone at the door.” You know what those five words are saying, but what do they mean? It depends on where, when, how, and to whom the speaker says them.

Scenario A (a wife to her husband): Their bedroom. 2:00am. Whispering.

Scenario B (a father to his son): From upstairs. 5pm. Yelling.

Scenario C (a student to her teacher): In the classroom. 11:30am. Distractedly.

“There’s someone at the door” means something different in each of these scenarios. In the first, the wife means for her husband to investigate the noise and protect her from what she fears to be an unwelcome intruder. In the second, the father means for his son to pay the pizza delivery guy who just brought their dinner. In the third, the student means for her teacher to stop their lecture and tend to the distraction from outside.

Knowing where, when, how, and to whom someone says something makes a great deal of difference. That’s common sense.

Now, let’s consider the statement that “Jesus successfully resisted the devil’s temptations with Scripture,” based on Matthew 4:1-11. If we were to decide that’s the exegetical idea of that passage, skip the analysis of stage four, and merely restate our exegetical idea as our sermon’s homiletical idea, it might go something like this: “You can overcome temptation with Scripture.” We’ve all heard, and many of us have preached, that sermon. But is that what Matthew meant to convey through what he said? And is that all he meant, or did he mean more?

Consider where he said it. In a Gospel, which is more of a theological reflection than it is a modern biography.

Consider when he said it. In chapter four of his Gospel. That’s after he tells us about Jesus’ relationship to Abraham and David (1:1), after he outlines the flow of Israel’s history through his selective tracing of the branches of Jesus’ family tree (1:2-17), after he recounts Jesus’ boyhood flight to Egypt (2:13-15), after he recalls the murder of the innocents around the time of Jesus’ birth (2:16-18), after he repeatedly reminds us of how Jesus fulfilled the Prophets’ words (1:22-23; 2:5-6; 3:17-18; 3:23), and after he tells about how Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil after passing through Jordan’s baptismal waters (3:13-17).

Matthew is telling a very Jewish story about a very Jewish Jesus. To this point in his Gospel, he has presented Jesus’ story as a reenactment of Israel’s story, while subtly portraying Jesus as a prophet like Moses and Elijah, who, it should be remembered, experienced their own desert showdowns. But Jesus’ story is about to take a major twist! He succeeds where Israel failed.

Consider how he said it. Satan’s opening “If you are the Son of God” (4:2) follows hard on the heels of God’s earlier declaration “This is my beloved Son” (3:17). Satan’s “if” is better understood to mean “since.” “Since you are the Son of God, take care of yourself.” The temptation wasn’t for Jesus to prove himself but to exploit his position and power for personal advantage.

Jesus’ reply, like his two replies to follow, comes from Deuteronomy 6-8. It is there that Moses summarizes the Law for a new generation of Jews about to claim their long-awaited promised land.

Consider each line of Matthew 4:1-11 carefully. Note the original contexts of the verses from which Satan and Jesus quote. Observe how the ancient serpent uses Psalm 91:11-12 to tempt Jesus but stops short of verse 13 where the psalmist declares that the righteous will trample the adder underfoot (compare with Gen. 3:15 and Rev. 20:2). See, too, how Matthew places last the temptation for Jesus to seize the king’s crown without suffering the agony of Calvary’s cross. This was the evil one’s intended kill shot—the temptation that would appeal most to a man predestined to be king.

Let’s now go back to that exegetical idea: “Jesus successfully resisted the devil’s temptations with Scripture.” The statement is true. It captures part of what Matthew says. But in view of where, when, and how Matthew says what he does, he meant something more.

Question #2: What Does the Author Assume?

In all three scenarios given above, the person saying “there’s someone at the door” assumes their hearer will know what they mean. The wife assumes her husband will understand that she means she’s fearful for her safety; the father for his son to understand that their hunger is about to be sated as soon as their meal is paid for; and the student for her instructor to understand that they can’t concentrate on the lecture because of the distraction from outside their classroom. All three speakers use the exact same words but with different assumptions about how their hearers will interpret their words’ meanings.

What does Matthew assume? First and foremost, he assumes a great deal about his audience, and it wasn’t us! Obviously, right? But let the fact that Matthew had a different audience than us in mind sink in for a minute. He wasn’t writing to postmodern, individualistic, pragmatic, consumeristic Americans living in a free society at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Instead, he was writing to first-century Jewish people struggling to survive under Rome’s boot; people who knew their nation’s history, its heroes, and its failures; people who longed for liberation and Davidic leadership; people of Abraham and Abraham’s God. Moreover, he knew his readers wouldn’t bat an eye over his mentioning of a personal devil, a God who speaks audibly, or the possibility of miracles. Matthew knew his audience would take all these things for granted.

He assumed they would understand his gospel for what it was—not a psychological profile, twenty-first century biography, or how-to guide for life—a personal recounting of a remarkable life with profound theological, historical, national, and, yes, personal implications. He assumed that most of his audience would hear his Gospel rather than read it and that they would hang on every word. He didn’t expect them to conflate his record of Jesus’ life with what anyone else had or would write to produce a fuller biography or timeline but to respect it as a singular report unto itself. He assumed that his audience would understand that he was writing for a particular purpose, not mere information but persuasion, and that their preconceptions would be challenged and their emotions stirred by what he said. In short, Matthew assumed that his hearers would not only get what he was saying but understand what he meant.

It is this part of the road from saying to meaning, from text to sermon, from exposition to application, that is especially tricky to negotiate. It demands that we stop, step out of our present-day shoes and into the sandals of the past, slip in among those pilgrims who first travelled this stretch of road from what Matthew said to what he meant, then proceed cautiously. We must read the text slowly, read it closely, and hear it as they did against the backdrop of what Matthew has already said.

We’ll worry about answering our postmodern hearers’ objections later. We’ll plan to offer whatever validations are necessary and appropriate applications only after we’re reasonably sure of the answer to our third developmental question.

Question #3: What Is the Author Doing with what They’re Saying?

A frightened wife at two in the morning is awaking and begging her husband to set her mind at ease when she whispers “There’s someone at the door.” A hungry father at five in the evening is summoning and ordering his son to pay for their supper when he yells “There’s someone at the door.” A distracted student midway through her daily algebra lesson is interrupting and requesting her instructor to help her concentrate on his lecture when she informs “there’s someone at the door.” Clearly, there’s more to these words than their speakers are saying.

Speech Act Theory teaches that speakers do things with what they say and that they intend for their hearers to do something in response. This is true in the three preceding scenarios, and it’s true of Matthew’s story about Jesus’ temptation.

What was Matthew attempting to do by virtue of this story he told, and what did he want his audience to do in response? Only when we know the answers to these two questions can we safely proceed to formulate our sermon’s homiletical idea based on its exegetical idea. As we do so, we’re simultaneously moving from interpretation to application—application that is grounded in and constrained by what the author meant by what he said rather than our own imagination and best guess at how his words might apply today.

Based on the where, when, and how of what Matthew said to his assumed audience, it appears that he intended to show that while Jesus enacted much of Israel’s history and embodied what Israel remembered from the lives of some of her most cherished heroes, he succeeded where Israel and her heroes had failed. He withstood the adversary’s advances. He did not succumb to temptation. In his hour of trial, Jesus relied fully upon Israel’s God. He is Christus Victor! All who follow him march in rank behind the victorious king. For that reason, no sin should have dominion over them.

Does the homiletical idea “You can overcome temptation with Scripture” fully capture what Matthew seemingly meant to say? Hardly. Perhaps “All who follow King Jesus march to the beat of a victoriously submissive drum” comes closer to the mark. At the very least, it teases the imagination and leaves the hearer wanting to know more. Hopefully, the sermon that flows from Matthew’s text as summarized in this homiletical idea will make hearers want to fall in line behind this remarkable king, and that’s precisely what Matthew meant for his audience to do.


It’s not enough for us to understand what a text says. We must also understand what it meant—what it was meant to do and what it meant for its first hearers to do in response. We are then in a better position to understand what it means for us to do now.

To take what we determine to be a text’s exegetical idea and merely restate it in contemporary terms as our sermon’s homiletical idea leaves too many unsaid things unanalyzed. At worst, this lack of analysis misdirects our sermon’s application and leaves us declaring in God’s name what God’s Word doesn’t authorize. At best, it robs theological richness from our exposition and a certain gravitas from our application.

The road from text to sermon isn’t an easy one. Hearing what a text says is only part of the road. Proclaiming what it says is another part. In between is the hard work of understanding what that text means.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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