Preaching the Passage
In a six part series, Ray Evans unpacks some advice for preachers. In this first part of 'Communication 101' he begins to explore what it means to preach the passage.
Christ the King rules his church through his word. That word is brought to his people through Christ-appointed, church-recognised leaders (Eph 4:7-13).
So Christian leaders have to be faithful to their Master by correctly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). And they have to communicate that word to the flock of God, and to those not yet in God’s family, as well as they can (2 Tim 2:24, 25).
Down through the centuries ‘the Communicator’s Craft’ has been discussed so that each new generation can build on the insights of others.1 This will help them to better discharge their responsibilities. For example, J R R Tolkien commented that a good sermon consisted in, “Some art, some virtue, and some knowledge.”2
The theologian John Frame, using his familiar tri-perspectival approach, mentions the three concepts of ‘Normative’, ‘Situational’, and ‘Existential’ to describe three key ingredients of Christian communication.3
Today there are still three corners of the communication triangle for preachers. I want to spend a few weeks looking at three Ps: Passage, People and Prayer.
It is worth pondering which of these is most easily neglected. My experience tells me that despite the emphasis of Acts 6:4 (“We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”, note the order), fervent, secret prayer that asks the Lord that his word would be ‘real’ to those who hear it, is often a poor cousin to other aspects of our communication responsibilities.
Some also seem to play down the importance of the context, namely the people who are actually being spoken to. One can take for granted that a speaker knows, understands, and loves the people he is addressing. We can assume that he empathises with them and what he says actually speaks to their lives.
But my intuition is that too few speakers take as much time and trouble to connect to different kinds of people, as they do to accurately convey the meaning of a Bible passage.
To summarise: the two relatively underplayed aspects of communication in many Bible-preaching churches may well be the ‘People’ and ‘Prayer’ corners of the communication triangle. I will come to those in the weeks ahead. But in this article and the next two we will look at ‘Passage’.
Meaning & Message
Charles Simeon said,
“My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less then I believe the mind of the Spirit, in the passage I am expounding.”
Following in that same great tradition, John Stott said,
“To expound the Word of God is so to treat a verse or a passage from the Bible as to draw out its meaning, its application and its challenge. Exposition is the direct opposite of imposition. The expository preacher comes to the text not with his mind made up, resolved to impose a meaning on it, but with his mind open to receive a message from it in order to convey it to others. The dearest desire of the expository preacher is so to speak as to let the Scriptures themselves speak, and so to preach that afterwards the sermon is eclipsed by the growing splendour of the text itself.”
J I Packer rightly raised the question, “With what authority do you speak?” He responded by saying:
“In a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought, the shape and the thrust of his message reflect his own best notions of what is good for the people rather than being determined by the text itself. But the only authority the sermon can then have is the human authority of a knowledgeable person speaking with emphasis and perhaps raising his voice.”
Jay Adams, in his stimulating if at times simplistic book Preaching with Purpose, similarly argues that the authority we must harness does not derive from our own office (‘I am an elder don’t you know’), or ability (‘I’m a better speaker than you’), or privilege (‘I happen to be holding the microphone’), but the authority of God.4
The Holy Spirit has inspired each passage, verbally and inerrantly, for a purpose. Our task as expository preachers and teachers is to identify his purpose as signalled in the words of the passage, align ourselves with it, and to convey it to others. We can then know that we are speaking with his authority.
Generally, New Testament epistles have purposes which are often clearly spelt out (e.g. 1 Thess 4:18). The epistles are a good place to start learning to be a Bible-based preacher. These letters are addressing believers largely living in the same period of redemptive history as our hearers, and to make the message addressed to ‘them and then’ and apply it ‘to you and now’ is often easier than with other genres of literature and periods of history.
Old Testament narrative requires much more work, skill and thought. One has to correctly identify why the Holy Spirit inspired the passage through carefully assessing the ‘telic’ or ‘purpose’ clues he has given in the way the narrative is constructed and reported.
For example in Genesis 43, a teaching passage I had to speak on recently, a clue which helped me unlock the passage was the recognition that Jacob, who is the subject of much of the narrative, is always referred to by his new name of ‘Israel’ in this section. The Holy Spirit had a purpose in this and my role was to convey this as a message to people now. That requires moving from that redemptive epoch through a lot of biblical and theological activity to bring a faithful message to hearers today. This can be very challenging. But unless it is done we won’t have the authority to speak for the original author of Scripture, the Lord himself.
We can help ourselves by means of more careful reading and reflection on the text. Even well-known passages can be read superficially and then the message lost.
Take Luke 24 as an example. There are numerous ‘time indicators’ in the text. Luke in effect presents, ‘One day that changed the world for ever’. At each part of the day he describes disciples who gradually moving from confusion and perplexity, to awareness, and on to joyful certainty (cf Lk24:1, 13, 29, 33 – one day with a morning, afternoon, and evening).
Luke then fast-forwards 40 days to the Ascension. How many times must I have read Luke’s resurrection account and just assumed that his story was spread over various days as in the other gospels. More careful reading revealed the obvious. Of course, it may just be that I am thick and you spotted this the first time you read it!
Another example could be taken from the end of Romans 8 and the beginning of Romans 9.
How many of us ever pick up the powerful emotional link between the believer’s absolute security in the plan of God, and the anguish and heart-breaking concern for those we love who are, as yet, lost?
Does that ever come out in our messages from that part of the Bible? Or have we become fixated in our reading and preaching by the chapter divisions (added so much later), and perhaps unconsciously have missed the Holy Spirit’s purpose in bringing these two doctrinal realities and emotional experiences so closely together?
The Unique Perspective
To help us capture and then convey the purpose of the passage, many have argued that we should try to identify one ‘Big Idea’ or an ‘Arc’ (direction) of a passage. Maybe you have worked with this yourself?
But to stop ourselves drifting into bland generalisations, we have to keep asking, ‘What is this passage uniquely saying that the Spirit wants the people of God to hear?’ That often means grappling with the text until I get it clearer in my own mind. I don’t want to lose the specific flavour of the particular passage.
I will also recognise that much has to be left behind on the preparation table of my study desk, as I seek to bring a tasty meal to God’s people. This, ‘less is more’ approach is hard to do, so the use of the Big Idea, or the Arc, helps distil many potential good insights into crisp and relevant messages. Exposition is not a running Bible commentary but, rather, a ‘message from this passage, to you my hearers’.
As we grapple with the passage, get a big idea or a main purpose, we will often begin to prepare an outline of the main things we want to bring out from the passage. Whether you write out a full manuscript or not, nearly everyone has headings, written down or held in their mind.
Predictably we have three! But don’t despise that. ‘The rule of three’ is a tried and tested speaking rhythm that has lasted down through the ages (‘Three little pigs’, ‘Bish, bash, bosh’, and all that!)
It is at this point of creating headings I have noticed a very real weakness in contemporary communicators. I think this is something so serious I want to address it separately. More next time!
1. James Rye, The Communicator’s Craft (IVP, 1990)
2. Accessed at www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/matthew-s-harmon/j-r-r-tolkien-on-good-preaching.html on 11 Oct 2018
3. See esp. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presby and Ref, 1987)
4. Jay E. Adams, Preaching with Purpose (Zondervan, 1982)