This is where we sometimes struggle the most. When preaching the epistles (less so the speeches of Joshua, Jesus, etc.), we can easily fall into logical information transfer and presentation of facts. But the fact is that all discourse is set in a narrative context. How do we make sure listeners feel the force of the discourse sections of Scripture, especially the epistles?
1. Be sure to set the scene contextually – the text is a glimpse into a narrative. It is when we treat the epistles as timeless statements or creeds, rather than letters, that we lose sight of the specific situations that sparked their composition in the first place. Help people to feel the emotion of Paul writing his last letter to Timothy, or his anger at the corrupting of the gospel in Galatia, or his connection with the Philippian church, or his passion for the unity of the churches in Rome. It takes effort and skill to effectively set a text in its historical context, but it must be done for listeners to really feel the force of the text.
2. Consider how to appropriately target the message to the listeners. If we are facing similar problems today, then perhaps the text can be preached with a sense of directness, rather than held at arms length as an exhibit from the ancient world. Perhaps the Galatian error hasn’t been introduced in your church (although perhaps contemporary churchgoers are closer to that than we’d like to think!) So if the original purpose and thrust doesn’t quite fit, would it work to imagine how it might and then preach directly? Somehow we need to hear what God is saying to us, now.
3. Build on the imagery included in the text. The epistles are not pure logical argumentation. They regularly refer to people, incidents, imagery, examples, rhetorical devices, etc. As a preacher we can build on these to make sure our preaching of that text is not mere lecturing on the facts with tacked on application. Most texts are far richer in imagery or wordplay than we tend to think. Not only in poetry and narrative, but also in the epistles, the text will often yield plenty of “illustrative” material if we observe carefully!
4. Build a sense of progression into the structure. How easy it is to simply produce a parallel set of points that do not build, do not progress, do not intrigue and do not pack a punch. A good outline is not only somewhat symmetrical (and not always that), but reflects the progression and punch of the text.
As we preach the text, let’s make it our goal to help listeners to feel the force of the text. Understand it, yes. Apply it, yes. But more than that, feel it (for when the force of the text is felt, understanding and application will increase!)