On April 18, 1999, I preached my first sermon at age 16. My life changed that Sunday morning when I finished the message. A calling descended upon my introverted tendencies and propelled me out of my comfort zone. The future was in vocational Christian ministry.
Now, exactly 14 years later, and after saying “let’s open our Bibles together” more than a thousand times, I am grateful to be in the ministry preaching the Bible. If I thought long and hard, I could come up with more than 14 lessons about preaching, but matching 14 lessons with 14 years is just the kind of numerical parallel a preacher would make.
Yesterday I covered 7 lessons, and below is the rest.
8. Preach from the Old Testament – Don’t take my word for it, take the apostle Paul’s. In 2 Timothy 4:2 he told young Timothy to “preach the word,” referring to the Old Testament. So there you have it, a command for Old Testament preaching straight from the guy who wrote thirteen books in the New Testament.
Think about it. When the apostles began preaching the gospel from the Scriptures, they couldn’t ask people to open their Bibles to the Gospel of John or Romans 3. They proclaimed Christ from the Old Testament, and we must do so too. Glory of glories that we also have the New Testament! But let us not neglect the canvas on which the story of Jesus was painted. The Christian faith begins not in Matthew but in Genesis. The Old Testament is Christian Scripture!
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament proves that it expects you to know the Old. The New Testament is filled with so many images, names, places, references to events, echoes, and quotes from the Old Testament that to neglect it reduces the ability to understand the New. Since we should want people to understand the Whole Counsel of God, let’s study hard and preach the Old Testament to the people of God.
9. Don’t Cling to a Certain Genre of Passages – Avoid aligning yourself with certain genres while completely overlooking others. If you only preach from psalms or letters or parables, it’s time to branch out from your preference.
An amazing reality about God’s Word is how he communicated his truth through so many different genres of Scripture. By your preaching, show others how to interpret different categories of Scripture. After all, over time in personal Bible reading, your people will digest passages from various genres, so corporate absorption of such material is helpful and needed.
Be sensitive as well to the genre of a passage when preparing your sermon. You’ll want to preach a narrative differently than you would a psalm or one of Peter’s letters. Helpful resources for this task include A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert Stein, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer, According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by James Hamilton, Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan Pennington, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles by Thomas Schreiner, Interpreting the New Testament Text edited by Darrell Bock and Buist Fanning, and The Scriptures Testify About Me edited by D. A. Carson.
10. Don’t Preach Everything You Learned about the Passage – It is a wonderful privilege to prepare a sermon. But let’s face it, the resources available can tell us far more about a passage than should go into a sermon. Your goal should be to preach the passage faithfully, clearly, compellingly. Your goal is not to say everything that can be said.
This point calls for discernment. Out of excitement for what you’ve learned, the temptation may be to pile on insights, address the passage from every angle, and give all the historical information you found interesting–decisions which would certainly overwhelm the hearers who have not spent countless hours pouring over the passage and helpful resources.
Growth in the craft of preaching involves the discipline of knowing what to leave out and why. Matters that might titillate the minds of seminary students in a classroom do not necessarily belong in a congregational sermon. This is true with the original languages too. Just because you can read and pronounce Hebrew and Greek doesn’t mean you should do so in your sermon. As a general rule, it’s best not to.
11. At Least for Yourself, Summarize Your Sermon in a Simple Sentence – When I was in college, a pastor emphasized this element of preparation, and I’ve seen its wisdom advocated in different books on preaching. The question comes down to “Can you state simply and clearly what your message is about?”
This “sentence” isn’t necessarily for your hearers, but it’s definitely for you. Forming this sentence will crystalize your thoughts as to what exactly you’re trying to convey. Don’t make the sentence too complex, and try to write it with active verbs.
Aim to conform your sentence to the point of the passage. In other words, make sure you’re trying to communicate the same thing the passage is! If you form this single sentence and discover it’s different from what the passage is saying, it’s time to rewrite that sentence. Don’t use the biblical text as a platform to communicate what you’d like to talk about.
12. Rehearse Illustrations Before the Sermon – Illustrations should illumine the point you’re making, but botched and bumbled ones don’t serve the hearer. Many preachers find a great way to drive home the concept they’re preaching, but they don’t walk through the illustration before the moment of delivery. This is a mistake and sets up the preacher for a memorable moment of public awkwardness.
An easy way to avoid fumbling your illustrations is to rehearse them ahead of time. Out loud. The whole thing. A few times. Rehearsing your illustration(s) will help the flow of phrases stick in your head. Your transition can be smoother, you can aim to be concise, and going over it can give you the chance to make sure it’s appropriate and helpful.
If you’re telling a story, can you pronounce the names and places? Do you have the order of events correct? If you’re reporting that the illustration is true, do you know, to the best of your research, that it is? If you’re telling a story about others and planning to use their real names and situation, do you need their permission? Is every element of the illustration appropriate and acceptable? Sometimes it may be helpful to run your illustrations by others whom you trust, and hopefully they will confirm that it’s a good one to use. Sometimes, though, others spot an incongruity when we don’t, and they can save you from a bad illustration!
13. Sit Under Your Own Preaching – The preparation process is important for the soul of the preacher, but so is the act of preaching. The people of God gather to hear the Word of God, and we sit under such authority as we stand behind a pulpit. This means that the preacher, the herald of the Word, is under such authority even in the act of proclaiming it.
The Word of God through us is still the Word of God for us. Your prayer should be that God work in you as you preach and teach. Pray that his Word be as a sword for the division of your marrow as well as theirs. We need to be preachers affected by the Word we’ve prepared to preach, and this effect should be evident as we preach it.
The sound of our own voice can still carry God’s Word to our hearts in ways we need it most. We need conviction, edification, encouragement, rebuke, and instruction. May our sermons be a source of strength for our souls as we preach , and may we recognize that we–along with our hearers–are people of God under the Word of God. You are not above the message you’ve prepared. Sit under your own preaching.
14. Get to the Gospel – I believe in reading the Two Testaments with a Christological lens and end-game, so we should be eager to preach about Jesus in our sermons. We must get to the Gospel. The Old Testament points to and prepares for the Gospel’s coming, and the New Testament announces the Gospel’s arrival, so talking about Jesus in your sermons should be common practice.
Don’t preach the Bible as if Jesus hasn’t happened yet! Preach the Bible in light of the person and work of Christ. The Gospel is the greatest news in the universe, and we should incorporate this News into our message for God’s people. The Gospel is for Christians, even as it is for unbelievers.
Someone once said to a room of preachers, “Ask yourself what it is that makes your sermon a Christian sermon,” and that’s a statement worth thinking about. In the power of the Spirit, we should testify of Jesus to the glory of the Father, and we testify of Jesus in our sermons by getting to the Gospel, the news centering on his vicarious death and victorious resurrection. So in your preaching, make sure you get to the Gospel.
A recap of all 14 lessons learned in 14 years:
1. Listen to Great Preaching
2. Be Receptive to Feedback from Trusted People
3. Learn, Read About, and Grow in the Craft
4. Pray for Yourself, Sermon, and Hearers
5. Don’t Fret Over Fancy Outlines
6. Preach Tough Texts
7. Preach Controversial Texts
8. Preach from the Old Testament
9. Don’t Cling to a Certain Genre of Passages
10. Don’t Preach Everything You Learned about the Passage
11. At Least for Yourself, Summarize Your Sermon in a Simple Sentence
12. Rehearse Illustrations Before the Sermon
13. Sit Under Your Own Preaching
14. Get to the Gospel