20 Years of Preaching the Bible

Open Bible picToday is April 18, 2019, which is twenty years since my first sermon on April 18, 1999. I have a deep love for opening God’s Word with God’s people, and I hope this joy never fades. Throughout these twenty years, I have learned and heard many important truths about preaching Scripture, and it seems fitting to share twenty thoughts.

  1. The whole Bible is important for the whole Christian, so preach the Old and New Testaments.
  2. The Bible is not boring, so neither should the preacher be.
  3. You can’t preach everything you’ve studied about a text, so a vital part of sermon preparation is determining what to exclude.
  4. Your personal sorrows are part of your sermon preparation.
  5. Some days you may not feel like preaching, but you preach anyway because the power of God works through his Word.
  6. Preaching must not be a regurgitation of commentaries.
  7. Don’t clog up your sermon with lengthy illustrations; simple and concise illustrations are helpful and sufficient.
  8. Growing in the craft of preaching is important, so read resources and learn from listeners (especially from other preachers) about ways you can improve your own presentation and method.
  9. Write a lot, either in a journal or in a document or for your congregation, because writing will fine-tune your thinking and your use of words.
  10. Make appeals and applications at points during your sermon, not only at the end.
  11. Don’t assume a faithful sermon equals a long sermon; instead, seek to treat the text faithfully and helpfully for your people, and that goal probably means the length will vary.
  12. Experiment whether notes-free, some notes, bare outline, detailed outline, or a manuscript works for you, but don’t think you have to adopt the method that works for others.
  13. Engage the imagination of the listeners, for that will help them stay engaged with you.
  14. First and last words matter, so spend time thinking about your sermon’s introduction and conclusion.
  15. Preach your own sermons, not somebody’s sermon that you’ve found online or in a book somewhere.
  16. Preach through difficult passages and through difficult books of the Bible.
  17. Whenever you think, “That sermon didn’t go the way I’d hoped,” thank God for the power of his Word, acknowledge that he uses his Word in ways we’ll never know, and then take a nap.
  18. Pray that God will help you exult in his Word as you are preaching it.
  19. With the authoritative and inspired Word of God that is sharper than a two-edged sword, you don’t need gimmicks.
  20. Be doers of the Word and not just preachers of it only, for you need the sermon that you are preparing for others.

Ben Myers Tweeting Through the Bible

I loved reading Ben Myers’ collection of tweets about each Bible book. (He even does some intertestamental books!) Clever, artful, moving, and beautiful.

My favorites:

Ezekiel: Four flashing creatures, four wheels rimmed with eyes, one scroll, one Spirit, one Temple, one million creeping bones.

Malachi: You’ve got a new temple; now get new hearts to go with it, before the temple’s Lord appears and turns the tables on you.

Luke: After careful research I have prepared an objective scholarly account of what happened. It all began with an angel…

Romans: Adam lost it, Christ found it, the Spirit gives it, faith holds it, creation yearns for it, death yields to it.

Galatians: We felt insecure without our chains so we hired experts to repair them. Then Paul came back, wielding a sledgehammer.





The Central Section of the Sermon on the Mount

The structure of the Sermon on the Mount is debated among commentators. The following breakdown is the outline and literary structure I find most compelling among the suggestions they offer.

The Sermon on the Mount is from Matthew 5:1–7:29. Two occurrences of “the Law and the Prophets” (5:17; 7:12) appear to section off this large teaching block into three sections:

  1. Introduction to the Sermon (5:1-16)
  2. The main message of the Sermon (5:17–7:12)
  3. The conclusion of the Sermon (7:13-29)

The “main message” part (5:17–7:12) is also composed of three sections:

  1. Instances of “you have heard…but I say to you” (5:17-48)
  2. Disciplines susceptible to hypocrisy (6:1-18)
  3. Exhortations about trusting in God’s provision and seeking God’s kingdom (6:19–7:12)

The middle of the “main message” section is about “Disciplines,” and there just happen to be three of those also:

  1. Giving (6:1-4)
  2. Praying (6:5-15)
  3. Fasting (6:16-18)

The middle discipline–Praying–breaks into (wait for it…wait for it…) three parts:

  1. How not to pray (6:5-8)
  2. How to pray (6:9-13)
  3. The warning about not forgiving the trespasses of others (6:14-15)

Let’s recap. The Sermon divides into three sections (5:1-16; 5:17–7:12; 7:13-29), the middle section (5:17–7:12) divides into three more (5:17-48; 6:1-18; 6:19–7:12), then that middle part (6:1-18) also has three (6:1-14; 6:5-15; 6:16-18), and, finally, the middle of those Disciplines (6:5-15) has three parts as well (6:5-8; 6:9-13; 6:14-15). The most central section of the Sermon is 6:9-13.

If the Sermon on the Mount is a target, the bulls-eye is the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13).

A few (ahem: three) closing observations:

  • The arrangement of the Sermon seems to favor divisions of three.
  • The arrangement is a literary work of art.
  • The central piece–the Lord’s Prayer–is important for everything that precedes and follows it.

I’m currently preaching on this Sermon at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and the introduction to Matthew 5–7 can be heard here.

Is Jude Structured Chiastically?

Multiple scholars have argued for a chiastic structure of Jude’s letter. I’m currently preaching through its 25 verses on Sunday evenings, so I’ve spent time thinking through its structure too, and I think a chiastic arrangement is right. Here’s my adaptation of what I think’s going on:

  • 1-2   Opening Greeting
  •           3   Contend for the Faith
  •                    4   Judgment for Apostates Has Been Written About
  •               5-19   Here Are Some Examples of Such Judgment
  •           20-23   Here’s How to Contend for the Faith
  • 24-25   Closing Doxology

In the outermost frame (vv. 1-2, 24-25) Jude mentions both God and Jesus (v. 1, 25), and he also mentions being “kept” (vv. 1, 24).  He opens by writing to “those who are called” (v. 1), and he closes by praising “him who is able” (vv. 24-25). Jude wants “mercy, peace, and love” for his readers (v. 2), and he wants “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” for God (v. 25).

In the second section (vv. 3, 20-23) Jude speaks about “the faith.”  In v. 3 he tells his readers to contend for it, and in vv. 20-23 he picks up the idea again and this time elaborates on what he means.  They should contend for the faith (v. 3) by persevering in it and snatching others from the fire (vv. 20-23).

The center of the chiasm (vv. 4, 5-19) highlights God’s judgment on those who reject him and the way of righteousness.  Jude says their judgment has been written about (v. 4), and then he lists examples to reinforce his claim (vv. 5-19).  Jude appeals to both Old Testament and extra-canonical stories and images.  His concern is to vehemently deter his readers from treading the way of the intruders, for it’s a path under wrath.

Another way to think about the body of the letter (vv. 3-23) is to emphasize its theme verses (vv. 3-4), which set the tone for everything that follows.  Jude explains two things: his reason for writing the letter (v. 3) and his warning about the apostates’ inevitable judgment (v. 4). Then the rest of the body (vv. 5-23) elaborates on these theme verses, only in reverse: vv. 5-19 pick up on v. 4, and vv. 20-23 pick up on v. 3.

I find the preceding descriptions of Jude’s structure very helpful for interpreting it.  Do you find a chiastic arrangement convincing?  Is there anything you’d change about how I explained its parts in light of the whole?

Savoring the Biblical Text

Over at The Gospel Coalition site, I contributed an article (“See and Savor the Bible’s Rich Layers”) on reading the Bible patiently.  The goal of this kind of reading is to savor the text and see what is there but not readily apparent.

A patient reading of Scripture yields insight because we can reflect carefully on the text (even large portions of it) and make valuable intertextual connections.  Some connections are clear, like when a writer quotes a biblical passage, but at other times we may only discern an echo of or an allusion to a previous text.  These connections matter, and only the discipline of reading the Bible repeatedly and patiently can develop a sensitivity to see them.

Here’s an excerpt from the article: “The layers of a text matter because the authors wrote and arranged their material from a perspective shaped by the Old Testament. Even the words of later Old Testament writers were molded by earlier biblical texts. Their minds were drenched in ancient images and stories and promises. Our goal should be to immerse our minds in these things too.”

Peter Leithart on Multiple Structures of Biblical Texts

I deeply enjoyed Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture by Peter Leithart.  Chapter 5 is called “Texts Are Music” and it speaks to the literary structure of biblical texts.

Essentially Leithart argues that there may be more than one valid way to arrange a biblical passage.  Furthermore, multiple structural possibilities do not muddle the text but enhance and enrich it.

Leithart says, “Like intertextuality, multiple structure is virtually inescapable, especially in narratives and poetry” (143).  And, “Biblical writers are sensibly complicated, happy to tell several stories simultaneously and arrange their texts in three or four ways at once, just like normal people” (144).

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Book of Daniel, so I want to apply Leithart’s point to the whole work.  There are multiple ways scholars arrange Daniel’s twelve chapters.

First, here’s a simple arrangement into two parts:

  • Chapter 1-6:  Primarily Court Narratives
  • Chapter 7-12: Primarily Apocalyptic Visions

Second, there’s a well-established chiastic arrangement of the Aramaic section (which comprises Daniel 2-7):

  • Chapter 2: A Vision of Empires as 4 Metals
  •      Chapter 3: The Deliverance of Three Faithful Jews
  •           Chapter 4: The Arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar
  •           Chapter 5: The Arrogance of King Belshazzar
  •      Chapter 6: The Deliverance of Daniel
  • Chapter 7: A Vision of Empires as 4 Beasts

Third, from p. 325 of God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, Jim Hamilton develops the chiasm even more, including chapters 1 and 8-12:

  • Chapter 1: Daniel Exiled
  •      Chapter 2: Nebuchadnezzar’s Vision
  •           Chapter 3: Deliverance from the Fiery Furnace
  •                Chapter 4: Nebuchadnezzar Humbled
  •                Chapter 5: Belshazzar Humbled
  •           Chapter 6: Deliverance from the Lion’s Den
  •      Chapters 7-9: Daniel’s Visions
  • Chapters 10-12: Daniel’s Vision of the End of the Exile

Fourth, on p. 27 of his article “Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and the New Exodus,” Peter Gentry offers two chiastic structures between the book’s prologue and epilogue:

  • Chapter 1: Prologue
  •      Chapter 2: Image of Four Metals: Triumph of God’s Kingdom
  •           Chapter 3: Persecution of Daniel’s Friends
  •                Chapter 4: Humbling of Nebuchadnezzar Before God
  •                Chapter 5: Humbling of Belshazzar Before God
  •           Chapter 6: Persecution of Daniel
  •      Chapter 7: Vision of Four Beasts: Triumph of God’s Kingdom
  •      Chapter 8: Vision of Future History
  •           Chapter 9: Daniel’s Prayer and God’s Response
  •           Chapter 10: Daniel’s Grief and God’s Response
  •      Chapter 11:1-12:4: Vision of Future History
  • Chapter 12:5-13: Epilogue

Now to summarize.  If readers simply divide the Book of Daniel in half, the transition from court narratives (1-6) to apocalyptic visions (7-12) is highlighted.  If the Aramaic section (2-7) has its own structure, then the chiastic arrangement makes this section distinct.  But perhaps the Hebrew section (1, 8-12) should also be incorporated, so Hamilton and Gentry present two ways on how to do it.

The Book of Daniel demonstrates that multiple legitimate literary structures can exist within one work.

Why Preach Expositorily?

In this post, Clint Arnold gives 7 reasons to support the exposition of Scripture from the pulpit.  He explains each point with a few sentences, but here are the 7 in outline form:

(1) It is the best way to feed the sheep a balanced diet.
(2) It enables you to treat hard topics without being second-guessed.
(3) It helps to insure that you preach the Scripture and not yourself.
(4) It doesn’t have to be boring and lacking in relevance.
(5) Expository preaching is and should be application oriented.
(6) Expository preaching models how to read Scripture in context.
(7) There is a long history of this kind of preaching in the church–with great impact!