Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.

Evaluating Exegetical Options

When you are making sense of a passage, you will often have to evaluate several options. Perhaps two or three possibilities quickly emerge to make sense of a detail in the text. Maybe different commentators offer different explanations. If you take biblical study seriously then you will face this frequently. How can we evaluate the options and weigh the evidence in support of each?

This feels like a preacher’s concern. Of course, it should be. I suspect too many preachers don’t wrestle with their passage enough to notice different exegetical possibilities. But it should not be just a preacher’s concern. What about the people in your church? Where will they get a taste for really wrestling with the biblical text and coming to thought through and informed conclusions?

The approach I use is not a formula guaranteeing results. It is not spreadsheet-based with automatic formulae. It is a guideline that helps me weigh evidence. If I have level 1 evidence then it will generally be given more weight than level 2 or level 3 evidence. At the same time, if I have evidence at several different levels, it may outweigh evidence at a higher level. This is a guide, not a formula. I still need to subjectively do the weighing, even when the guide gives me an indication of the relative weight.

So from most valuable down to the least valuable:

Level 1. Syntactical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option that is found within the passage’s own structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

Level 2. Contextual Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context is stronger than section context, which is stronger than book context, which is stronger than same writer context, etc.)

Level 3. Lexical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the specific meaning of words used.  Since the meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support can sit here at level three.

Level 4. Correlational Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  After all, a different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distant passage that directly influences your focus passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is highly significant and may be considered as a form of contextual or level 2 evidence.)

Level 5. Theological Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlational evidence, but the correlation is with a theological creed or system.

Level 6. Verificational Evidence – this is support for a position found in “experts” (i.e. commentators, authors, sermons, etc.)  It is easy to fall into a false reliance on published books. Simply because a published name agrees with a position is of minimal value.  It is so much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above. That way the commentary becomes a conversation partner rather than a shortcut that always determines your understanding. Much better to weigh the evidence and come to an informed conclusion, rather than reading a commentator and come to someone else’s conclusion.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context. 

I do see a lot of people who either don’t wrestle with the meaning of the text in any meaningful way or else are too quick to accept the conclusions of others – either their preferred system of theology or their favourite commentator or preacher. Looking up a passage in two or three commentaries does not equate to exegetical effort.

We have to recognize the spiritual gravitas and countless other personal and ministry benefits that only come from diligent exegetical labour.

Handle the Text Carefully

When we preach we explain the meaning of details in a Bible passage. We do more than that too, of course. But here are five quick reminders about handling the text carefully:

1. Remember that the passage was originally written in another language, even though you probably don’t need to mention it. As one of my teachers put it, “Greek is like your underwear, it is important to have it on, but don’t let it show.” I think there is wisdom in both halves of that thought. We should use the languages as best we can in preparation, and generally, there is wisdom in not talking about it when we preach. For people who have never learned Hebrew and Greek, it is important to remember that there is both linguistic and cultural distance between the original text and our translation. It is wise to consult serious commentaries as you are preparing, and it is very wise to not support your presentation by appealing to the original language, especially if you are not comfortable translating the passage for yourself.

2. Be grateful for the English translation you have. While it is good to interact with some heavyweight commentators to help you with the original, be thankful for the translations we have. We don’t need to undermine our listener’s confidence in good translations by how we explain the text.

3. The meaning of words will change over time, so don’t build a point on the origins of a word. I read a few deliberately outrageous examples in a Moises Silva article that reinforce this point. He demonstrated, for instance, how we should not trust ranchers because of the old French etymological connection to our term, deranged. Or the argument that dancing should be forbidden for Christians because the word ballet comes from a Greek term that also shows up as part of the origin of the term translated “devil.” Don’t do that. Words mean what they mean in their context, in their contemporary usage at the time of writing.

4. Don’t read every possible meaning of a word into a specific instance. Let the context identify the meaning of a word. The other possibilities listed in the dictionary or lexicon need not concern you as you preach it. Take the term “chip” in this sentence – “The problem with your computer is a burned-out chip.” It doesn’t matter that the term can be used for a deep-fried potato chunk served hot in England, or a fried slice of potato served cold in America, or a piece of wood flying as the lumberjack chops at a tree trunk, or a useful shot for a golfer stuck in a bunker. Other possible meanings do not matter when the sentence itself clarifies the intended meaning.

5. Context really is king. When it comes to explaining the meaning of a detail in a text, context is always the golden guideline. Don’t get caught up building a point on a nuance of grammar, or a subtlety of vocabulary. Those finer points can usually be left in your study notes, or used to support what you are saying, but if you are going to make a big point about meaning, generally it should be made using context as your primary evidence.

We have to explain the meaning of the text whenever we preach. Let’s keep prayerfully pondering how we can do that in a way that is clear, helpful, instructive and not distracting.


Same Passage, Same People

Sometimes it becomes necessary to preach the same passage to the same people.  How do you handle that?

For instance, maybe you used a passage in a topical series, or on a special occasion, but then a later series is working through that Bible book and so you need to preach it again.  This happened to me this weekend.  The prayer of Acts 4:23-31 fit perfectly in our current Acts series.  But I preached it as a fitting New Testament conclusion to an Old Testament series on revival from 2 Chronicles less than two years ago.

So it may be the same passage, to the same people, but the series and the situation is different.  In fact, everything feels very different in 2020 than it did in 2018!  Here are four ways to handle this type of situation:

1. Same frame, different colouring. If your outline is a close representation of the passage, one approach is to use essentially the same outline, but adjust the illustrative details, the introduction, the conclusion, etc. (Yesterday my intro, conclusion, application and illustrations were all different to last time.)

2. Same frame, different emphasis. Another approach is to preach the same outline, but to shift the emphasis.  For example, the first time I preached the passage my emphasis was on the actual petition of the prayer – they asked for boldness.  This time my emphasis was on their view of God that led them to pray as they did.

3. Different outline.  It is possible to vary the outline of a message on a repeat passage and still be true to the text.  Effectively this is what I did yesterday.  In my first sermon I used three points to overview and present the content of the prayer relevantly to my hearers.  Yesterday I used a sequence of seven truths as they emerged from the prayer to preach the passage to a contemporary situation.  On this occasion the shift in emphasis naturally adjusted the outline (from their prayer for boldness, to their view of the God they were praying to), but I believe I preached the passage with an expository approach both times.

4. Same message, new context.  There may be occasions where it is appropriate to preach the same message with essentially the same emphasis, the same outline, and the same illustrative material to the same people.  However, this should not be done because the preacher didn’t do the work to prepare for this particular Sunday. Here are three quick thoughts about the same message being repeated to the same congregation:

A. A long time ago.  If it is years later, it can be interesting and helpful.  “On my first Sunday as pastor, twenty years ago today, I preached this message.  I was looking through my notes and decided to preach it again on this anniversary Sunday because the truth of this message is still so important for us all to hear…”  I can imagine that being appropriate and helpful. (Technically, this is very unlikely to be mostly the same people listening!)

B. A recent repetition. If it is a fairly recent repeat, then the preacher is essentially suggesting, implicitly, that the listeners need to hear it again, or maybe haven’t applied its message yet.  Again, you will need to be clear with the reasons for re-preaching your message.  Better they hear your motive than guessing it.

C. A secret repetition. Whatever the time lag, I would suggest not trying to sneak it past your listeners as a new message.  If it is essentially an old message, from old notes, then be honest about it.  You don’t want listeners feeling a weird sense of unidentifiable familiarity, nor do you want a keen listener to suspect you of pulpit foul play, nor do you want the discouragement of nobody having the slightest recollection of it!

Generally speaking, old notes do not equal a shortcut for this Sunday’s message.  A familiar text may require less exegetical work, but be sure that your listeners are getting fresh preaching because you have prepared your heart as well as your message, in anticipation of this Sunday!

Bible Highlight Videos

Since being in lockdown I have started to record some simple Bible reading highlight videos.  They are no-frills, hopefully both biblical and relevant.  Instead of making them polished mini-sermons, I have tried to keep them simple so that I can record them quickly and get them online.  I did this for the people in our church, but you may find them useful.  If you do, please share them on social media and pass them on to people that might benefit.

I hope you are finding ways to encouraging people into the Bible during this difficult time – we all have a unique opportunity to replace other activities with time in God’s Word. My prayer is that whatever the future new normal will be, that for all of us it will be a life characterised by greater appreciation of the gift that we have in being able to pursue God’s heart in the Scriptures.

Here are the short playlists available so far…



I Corinthians:

I Corinthians 15:

I & II Thessalonians:

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.

Thousands of People

When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul.  Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches.  But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher.  (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!)  Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?

There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:

  1. The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation.  We know we are minor characters.  And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
  2. Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
  3. God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned.  It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.

Let’s look at an example.  Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1).  It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison.  There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth.  Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses.  Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.”  These two passages are triggered by two events.  For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice.  For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.

What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1?  First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make.  It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives.  Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us.  Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately.  For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant.  Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.

However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:

  1. God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan.  (See Luke 1:13)
  2. Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years?  God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6).  While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
  3. Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry.  But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah.  That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
  4. For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting.  Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.

These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth.  But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important.  What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?

Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise.  She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories.  She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words.  Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child.  When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her.  The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief.  Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.

Personalize Your Preaching

Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized?  But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant.  We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.

True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines.  It is about heart-to-heart communication.  Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too.  So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?

1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart.  Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it.  When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads.  This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me?  I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach.  In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:

A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?

B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.

C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.

2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message.  Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers.  Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do.  Ask Him to give you His heart for them.  Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties.  Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are.  Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.

3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably.  Actually this is two points.  First, preach your own message.  Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it.  That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run.  When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message.  If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach.  By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.

Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability.  Let the you shine through.  There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation.  People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human.  Obviously you should think through what you will be saying.  It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw.  It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility.  But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach.  Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.

4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally.  We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory.  We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication.  Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times).  Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality.  If you are quiet, that is fine.  If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too.  What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach.  As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting.  Do the work so that people can hear from you.

There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching.  What would you add?

Every **ssage is Unique

A lot of preachers seem to scan their preaching passage for gospel words and then essentially preach the same message every week.  Their messages may be doctrinally sound and evangelistically clear, but they and their listeners are impoverished by this approach.

Every passage is unique.  Instead of scanning the passage for gospel words or harvesting imperatives for applicational teaching, my advice would be as follows:

Study the passage and seek to really understand it.  Don’t jump off that pursuit just because sermon material shows up in the text.  Keep studying and really seek to understand the passage.  Then prepare and preach a sermon that has a fingerprint as unique as the passage it is based on – so that every message is unique!

This approach will bless the preacher because you will enjoy the richness of God’s Word far more and find that God stirs your heart with layer upon layer of biblical truth.  This approach will bless the listener because they will not grow tired of hearing the same sermon dressed up in different clothes every week.  Instead they will start to appreciate the uniqueness of each passage, the beautiful diversity of Scripture, and the multi-faceted and highly relevant wonder of God’s character.

3 Approaches to Preaching

Here is a simplified summary of how preachers engage with the biblical text.  It is not an exhaustive summary, but I hope it will offer some helpful insight.

1. Springboard Preaching

This is where the preacher touches down in a passage only as long as necessary to bounce out of the text and into their own thoughts. A word or phrase may be taken on the journey through the message, but it has long since been ripped out of its passage context.  The preaching may be superficial and heretical, or it may be theologically brilliant, but whatever it is, it is not handling the Scriptures in a helpful or meaningful way.

2. Highlight Bounce Preaching

This is where the preacher is a little more aware of the context of the passage and moves through the passage noting highlights along the way. Typically these highlights will reflect the best bits of Bible study done in preparation, and if the message remains focused on the preaching text then it will tend to be a stronger message (there are exceptions to this, of course).  This approach is better than Springboard Preaching, but it can still feel like a fairly amateur approach to preaching.  That is not to say that there are not proponents of preaching styles that inadvertently advocate this approach, albeit with a greater emphasis on the unity of the message than the more rudimentary “random highlights” approach of an untrained beginner.

3. The Deeper Passage to Life Approach

This is where the preacher has studied the passage in its context and is able to present the message of the passage to some depth.  The depth and focus of the passage engagement also allows for effective targeting and penetration in contemporary life application.  This is not a series of mini-messages on various passage details, nor an oversimplification of the passage that offers a set of parallel preaching points.  Instead, it seeks to allow each detail to work together to convey the single thrust of the passage in a message that really represents the passage in question (rather than forcing the passage to support a standard sermon shape as often happens in the previous approaches).  Obviously the depth of the message and the accuracy in application will vary depending on the skill and maturity of the preacher, the time available for preparation, and the capacity of the listeners.

This third approach should honour the text in seeking to communicate what is actually there.  It should stir the preacher who is actually studying a passage rather than simply shaping a message with different material.  It should impact the listeners because the unique message of this passage will be planted in their hearts.

Let’s evaluate our approach to preaching and seek to stay in the text more than the first approach, and then seek to probe the text more than the second approach.  And if we get into the realm of the third approach, then there will always be so much more to learn and improve!