As a pastor, I’m in God’s Word a lot. I spend many hours reading it, outlining it, praying over it, meditating upon it, and wrestling with it in order to teach it. Throughout all of these practices, I’m amazed that I can never fully grasp even one verse of Scripture. The depth of God’s Word is deeper than the ocean, and has more layers than the largest onion that you can conceive of. The Word of God nourishes my soul, gives me encouragement for today, and convicts me of sin. All of this happens while I am preparing messages to preach.
I remember for years how pastors and professors encouraged me to not neglect my daily quiet time with God. Even though I wasn’t a pastor yet, I would preach occasionally, so I knew (at least a little) of what goes into preparing a sermon. I wondered how I could ever neglect my quiet time with God as a pastor when I’m forced to be in God’s Word so much merely due to my pastoral responsibilities.
But I’ve learned that that’s exactly why it is so important for me to guard my time with God. It’s not because God speaks to me any more through His Word when I’m reading it apart from sermon preparation. On the contrary, God certainly speaks to me through both. And it’s not because I take a different approach to studying the Bible when I approach it in a devotional way. As I’ve already mentioned, God’s Word nourishes my soul even in the midst of preparing a message for God’s people.
So why must I maintain a separate time of devotion with God, when I already spend meaningful time in His Word as a part of my regular pastoral duties? In order that I never forget that fundamentally I am not a pastor, but a believer in Jesus Christ. He is my Lord, and owe Him my life. I’m given the great privilege as a pastor to devote myself wholly to the ministry of the Word. But in order to do that, I must first allow the Word to minister to me. Because I, too, am a weak and lowly sinner, in need of the grace of God.
For the past few weeks, I’ve had to preface my words with “unless Abby goes into labor.” For example, when my brother asked us if we wanted to come over to his house to watch the Super Bowl, I responded, “unless Abby goes into labor, we’ll be there.” Our lives were basically on hold until this baby was born. But now that Emily Grace has made her appearance, I don’t have to use that phrase anymore!
Using this kind of language, though, has made me think about a similar concept talked about in the book of James. James wrote, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:13-17).
Just as I had been prefacing my plans with “unless Abby goes into labor,” James tells me to preface my plans with “if the Lord wills.” But why does James call this kind of language “boasting”? It’s because God alone knows the future. When we suppose that we know what will happen tomorrow, we exalt ourselves and pretend that we have some control over what will happen to us. It is a failure to recognize that the Lord is God. So by telling us to say “if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” James is reminding us to give God the right to change our plans as He desires.
Certainly James did not mean for me to merely repeat a script any time I talk about something I would like to do. Rather, I should always consider any plans that I make (even if, as they should be, the plans that I make are according to God’s Word) to be tentative in light of not knowing God’s ultimate plan.
I don’t have to say “unless Abby goes into labor” for awhile anymore, but I should never presume to know what will happen tomorrow, and always give God His rightful place of authority and guidance in my life.
Through the sermon, the pastor has the obligation of teaching the Word of God in such a way as to allow it to fulfill its purpose in the lives of God’s people.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
It’s interesting that the next two verses, not nearly as well known, give the preacher instructions in how to preach.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
We notice right away that there is a ton of overlap between the role of Scripture and the role of the preacher. Two of the words are exactly the same: correct and rebuke. And I think a good argument could be made that “training in righteousness” is done when we “encourage with great patience and careful instruction.”
When I first started preaching, I desperately searched for a definitive list of items that that should be included in every sermon. What questions should I answer? How should I go about bringing the message? I couldn’t find the answers to these questions, probably because every sermon is rightfully so different, that it’s difficult to create a formula for a biblical sermon (besides “preach the Bible”).
However, I think 2 Timothy 4:2 gives us the formula.
- Preach the Word. Do not preach your opinion. Do not preach your experiences. Do not preach the latest scientific study. It’s fine to use these kinds of things as illustrations, but God’s Word ought to be the focus. Preach the gospel. Preach Jesus.
- Be prepared in season and out of season. Always be ready, and be well studied when you preach. Speaking God’s Word is such an honor and high responsibility that we should not take it lightly. When the church gathers, they expect to hear a Word from God, so be faithful and well prepared to speak one to them.
- Correct. Undoubtedly in every passage of Scripture, there are teaching points that will be made that fix wrong ideas held previously. Be aware of these so that you may gently lead God’s people to embrace the truth of God’s Word.
- Rebuke. Though we gather as God’s people, we are still sinners. Sin should never be treated as a trivial thing. So every sermon ought to call sin what it is, and demand that we repent of our sin.
- Encourage. Living in a fallen world, as fallen people, is a difficult thing. We are engaged in spiritual warfare. Believers need to hear encouragement through God’s Word that will help them to get through the week.
- With great patience. Though God’s standard is perfection, we cannot reasonably expect a person to become perfect overnight. God sometimes changes people in an instant (especially in matters of lifestyle sin), but often God changes people over a period of time. Our preaching must both uphold God’s standard of perfection while simultaneously being understanding of shortcomings.
- Careful instruction. As the one who delivers a message from the Word of God, the church is looking to you for direction. Do not use that power lightly. Do not command what the Bible does not command. Only give instruction so far as God’s Word gives instruction.
So in every message I preach, I strive to do these things. The words and the topics will vary greatly, but as long as I focus on bringing the gospel to God’s people, it will accomplish what it needs to.
Seven months ago, when I became a pastor, I suddenly switched from preaching once a month to three times a week. I suddenly switched from having several weeks to prepare one sermon, to having just a few days to prepare three. And it was rough for awhile. I was in the habit of writing out my sermons word for word.
I got into this habit due to my seminary education. I realized just how important the sermon is. It’s not merely a chance for the preacher to get up and ramble for a little while on how we need to be better Christians. It’s an opportunity to teach and explain the Word of God. Paul gave Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus, the following instructions:
“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4:2
And to most effectively maximize the time allotted for God’s Word to fulfill these objectives, a full manuscript is extremely useful.
But it’s also extremely time consuming. While this forced me to think through every word ahead of time, it often took 20 hours or more to prepare a single sermon. And although I’ve read that pastors who spend that much time in sermon preparation have effective ministries, it seems silly to spend so much time on a single sermon that last less than an hour.
Fortunately, I’m learning that I don’t have to write a full manuscript for every sermon anymore, though it might still be helpful sometimes when addressing sensitive issues. I’m learning that I can normally preach from a good one page detailed outline. This cuts down on preparation time significantly.
I’d like to get to the point that I don’t need an outline at all. I’d like to get to the point that I know the sermon text so well (from many hours of study) that I’m able by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to stand up and passionately correct, rebuke, and encourage from God’s Word, with great patience and careful instruction. I’m not there yet, but by God’s grace I hope to be there within the next few years. No manuscript. No outline. Just preaching from God’s Word…what a concept!
One of the first tasks in preparing a sermon is simply selecting the biblical text to preach from. While it seems like such a simple thing, it can often be a monumental task. The text will determine the message. Preaching from a particular text will mean that some things will be said, and other things will be left unsaid. It will mean that you will address certain topics thoroughly while other topics are ignored completely. Time, energy, and thought in selecting the sermon text should not be neglected.
There’s no one way to select a sermon text. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “This is how you go about selecting a passage to preach on.” So there’s a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility involved. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that we should follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in sermon preparation, which includes the selection of the sermon text. Here are a few habits that I’ve developed that help in determining what I will preach on in the coming weeks:
- Prayer. I simply ask God to guide me in what to speak about.
- Follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Often God will lay a particular passage on my heart.
- Read through Scripture. By simply opening God’s Word and reading, a passage will often jump out and me.
- Select a passage that contains one complete thought. Sometimes this will mean preaching on 50 verses in one sermon. Sometimes it will mean preaching on half of a verse. Keep in mind that the chapter and number divisions are not inspired. They were added to the Bible centuries after it was written in order to help in finding and referencing passages in the Bible. So don’t be limited or bound by those divisions. A couple more notes about preaching on one complete thought.
- Sometimes a section of Scripture that contains a complete thought will still be based on the passage before it. We find this a lot with passages that begin with “For” or “Therefore.” As often as possible, I try to back up a few verses in order to show what the text that I’m preaching on is based upon.
- In the same way, when I preach on just a verse or even half of a verse, I almost always read more of the passage around it in order to make the context of the verse clear.
- Do a sermon series on a topic. Perhaps use a concordance to find several passages that talk about repentance, and focus a week on each passage.
- Preach systematically through books of the Bible. I love this method because it forces the pastor to preach on many different texts and topics, and doesn’t allow him to just pick the ones he’s most familiar with. That being said…
- Try to preach on passages and topics that you’ve never preached on before. It’s okay to preach on passages and topics that you’ve heard preached before (as long as you don’t just re-preach their message, and always give credit for illustrations and ideas that you use). But it’s easy to get into a rut of preaching on the same things week after week because we’re familiar with those things, neglecting the rest of God’s Word.
- Determine a preaching plan for the next few months or years. I’ve yet to plan an entire year in advance, but I hope eventually to plan about 3 years in advance. Such plans should be tentative, allowing for flexibility as various needs arise, but can be extremely useful.
- Take a look at a lectionary. Lectionaries are basically plans to read and/or preach through all of Bible every 3 or 4 years (depending on the particular one used) so that no part of God’s Word is neglected. This is different from preaching systematically through books of the Bible because it doesn’t always go through a book from start to finish, but often jumps around.
- Take a look at the calendar. Not only are there many Christian holidays, but the calendar is full of days to observe and note (such as National Day of Prayer and Right to Life Sunday).
- Take a look at the top news stories. When something major goes on in the world, your nation, or even your community, people want to hear what the Bible has to say about it.
Of course, I don’t always incorporate all of the above habits in selecting a text for every sermon I preach. I vary in how I select a text any given week. For instance, I sometimes preach topically for a few weeks before determining what series I will start next, and of course if you preach long enough, you’re going to start preaching on passages that you’ve preached on in the past. But some of the above habits ought to be practiced in preparing every sermon, such as prayer and following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I certainly don’t have the definitive steps in how to select a sermon text, but I hope that what I’ve learned is useful to someone else. Ultimately, we can’t go wrong in selecting a text to preach from, as long as it’s in the Bible. The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it will not return void.