So many people seem to want to listen to preaching that is “applicational.” I understand the impulse. After all, who would want to listen to non-applicational preaching? That sounds like preaching that is not relevant to my life and will not make a difference.
Actually, if we are talking about preaching that is relevant to life and genuinely transformative, then I am completely on board with that desire. The problem is that when we talk about “applicational preaching” it can fall short of what we really need. Here are some of the potential weaknesses:
1. Applicational preaching can place emphasis on action points and to-do lists. Now, there is certainly a place for knowing what is expected of us at the end of a sermon. If a passage gives an instruction that applies to us, then we should certainly note it and look to obey it. However, is the Bible primarily an instruction list for life? Some sermons give that impression, but perhaps that is missing something of the richness and purposefulness of God’s revelation.
2. Applicational preaching can point the listener in the wrong direction. When our preaching emphasizes what we must do, then the focus will tend to move toward our own willpower. Sermons that point the listener to their own discipline, their own choices, their own efforts, etc., are not the best sermons. And I don’t just mean they are not the most theologically impressive sermons. I also mean they are not the most effective sermons. Lives are not transformed by to-do lists. They can help, but they remain mostly on the surface. God is in the business of transforming lives from the inside out.
In order to see the full potential of any preaching or teaching ministry, I would encourage you to think about the ABCs of Application. Here is a brief explanation:
In our church, we have just completed an eight-week series in 1 Peter. Here are some brief reflections that may be helpful:
1. This epistle is relevant. I know that is not breaking news to you, but it bears underlining. 1 Peter speaks to people that felt like oppressed outsiders in the society in which they lived. It did then, and it does now.
2. Suffering may be necessary. We have lived through decades of relatively little suffering, but times seem to be changing. Suffering is not permanent, “now for a little while.” And suffering may be part of the plan, “if necessary.” In 1 Peter 1:6 we are introduced to the possibility that suffering is not the result of bad luck, but divine providence. As we come towards Easter we have the ultimate example of deliberate and planned suffering.
3. Biblical background helps. There is the situational background of the readers, forcibly moved from Rome and repatriated to these five regions of modern Turkey. There is the historical background of Peter’s life and experience. Keeping that in mind, as he would have done, is helpful to shine a light on his call to be prepared (3:15), to stay humble and to resist the devil (5:6-9), etc. Then there is the textual background of Peter’s biblical awareness as he wrote. For instance, the situation behind Psalm 34 seems to be shining a light on much of Peter’s writing in this epistle.
4. Difficult texts still have simple points. Preaching the end of 1 Peter 3 and the start of 1 Peter 4 is not easy territory to navigate. There is the timing, location and content of Jesus’ preaching in 3:19; then the reference to Noah in 3:20; followed by the awkward reference to baptism in 3:21. It is exegetical difficulty piled on exegetical difficulty. I chose to give some minutes to explain that complexity, but not before I emphasised the simple point of this section: Jesus suffered and Jesus was victorious. It helps to keep a clear picture in mind when trying to make sense of the complex.
5. The letter has a strong DNA. God’s pattern is for suffering now to be followed by glory later. It was true for Jesus, it was true for Peter’s readers then, and it is true for Peter’s readers now. Suffering and then glory: this idea works its way through the entire letter.
6. Variation can help a series work well. We had a team of preachers on this series. One of the messages was preached in first-person. It came in the middle of the series and really helped the series to not feel monotonous in style. Different preachers helped the series, although it was important to make sure we were preaching a coherent series.
7. Non-Suffering forms of Christianity lead to harm. We seem to live between two extremes. One is the fatalistic idea that disaster is coming no matter what. The other is the idealistic idea that we should always be healthy, and wealthy and travel in a private jet. What is the healthy middle ground? It is not a gentle form of health and wealth – that is, things should generally go well for us if we simply trust, pray and obey. Many Christians seem to want to live with their basic orientation towards good circumstances. No, the reality is that we live in a fallen world filled with suffering. So let’s turn from gentle forms of health and wealth, and let’s engage a fallen and sin-marred world with our hope reaching out beyond this suffering to the glory to come. Our hope is not in our experience but in the character of our good God and his plan.
8. 1 Peter should prepare us for difficulty, but stir us to trust! Every problem we face in this world is a problem that exists within creation. 1 Peter urges us to look beyond this realm to the eternal realities. We look outside of this realm to the God who is so much bigger, the God who cares for us. “The dog bit me,” ~ yes, but God is bigger. “But it was a big dog,” ~ so what, God is bigger. “But it was a lion,” ~ it doesn’t matter, God is bigger. “Actually it was a killer whale.” ~ Ok, but God is still bigger than any problem we can face in this realm. What’s more, he already came and suffered, and is now sitting in victory. So we can be humble, be watchful, and be hopeful. We get to stand in the true grace of God whatever may come our way.
There are plenty more thoughts generated by two months in 1 Peter. But hopefully this list is a motivational starter for now…
I have a series of videos on 1 Peter 2:1-10 that focus on the interpretation phase of Bible study. You can find them in this playlist:
The Bible is unlike any other book on earth for this reason: it was inspired by God. Other books may be written by inspiring people or by people inspired by their subject. But the Bible is “God-breathed” – it comes from God. God superintended the writing process so that the original authors wrote their thoughts, in their words, in their language, and God made sure that they wrote exactly what he wanted to be written. That is why we call it God’s Word. (2Tim.3:16)
So when the prophets wrote their books, they did not dream up their content. Rather, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit – he was the wind in their sails! Again, that means that what we have in our Bibles is not just humanly authored but also divinely inspired. (2Peter 1:20-21)
This all means that our goal in reading or studying the Bible is to understand what is there. What did the Author and the author intend to communicate? Our job is not to be creative, or fanciful, or original. We do not get bonus points for making up a meaning nobody has seen before. No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say!
Check out the latest video in the Enjoying the Word series:
During 2022, I decided to work my way through the Psalms. One video per Psalm. One point relating to interpreting the Psalm, and one point of relevance for today. I completed the playlist this week. I hope this can be useful to you. Please do let others know about this playlist if it might be helpful to them too.
I know some people used these videos as a companion to a personal reading of the Psalms this year, perhaps this can be useful in a similar way next year. Since the playlist is complete, it now allows that to happen at your pace instead of mine!
This might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but I think it needs to be said. We have to really work hard in order to really know a passage before we preach it.
It is very easy to assume we know a passage. It is very hard to recognize how much we don’t know. But learning to think clearly about your own thinking is a critical skill for the preacher.
Here are some thoughts to consider:
1. Knowing a passage involves more than knowing some highlights or landmarks in it. After reading a passage and spending some time in study, you may be able to identify some key features of the passage. You might be able to say that there is the truth in verse 3, and the truth in verse 5 and then the conclusion in verse 9. Do you know the passage? No, you are aware of some highlights in the passage.
2. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to launch preaching points from phrases in it. You might feel ready to preach because verse 3 mentions justification (and you have some things to say about justification), and then verse 5 mentions hope (and you have a nice illustration you want to share about hope), etc. Are you ready to preach the passage if you have some good preaching points ready to launch? No.
3. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to talk about each phrase with theological truth. But what if your preaching content is not illustrations, but rich theological truths? Maybe you have a whole theology of justification that you can launch in verse 3, and then you can make a presentation on sanctification because of a key word that appears later in the passage? Surely if it is rich theological truth, then you are ready to preach? No. Not if the passage is not saying what you are planning to say. Just because wind appears in John 3 does not mean that I should preach about God’s view of changing weather patterns from it.
4. Knowing a passage involves more than reading some commentaries about the passage. It is not a bad idea to have some conversation partners in your study. Other live humans can be super helpful. As can published ones. But even if I can quote from impressive commentaries, it does not mean that I really understand the passage yet. By all means use the best resources you can access, but remember the goal is still for you to understand the passage, not just to have studied things written about it.
5. Knowing a passage involves understanding the details as they work together in a coherent whole. This is where many preachers seem to stumble. They do reasonably well with the details. They speak theological truth. They associate that truth with the wording in the passage. But if they don’t recognize how the details are working together in the passage, they don’t know the passage. Remember, your goal is not to study a passage in order to find a sermon. Your first goal is to study it in order to understand it.
6. Knowing a passage involves understanding the flow of thought in the passage, with an awareness of context. A passage sits in a book, as part of the whole. If you don’t understand how the passage works in the book, how can you really grasp what the passage itself means? So we need to study each passage in its whole book, as well as whole Bible, context. The point is, each passage was written to communicate something specific, and we need to figure that out. Our job is not to generate meaning by creativity, but to find meaning by dogged humble persistence.
7. Knowing a passage means being able to explain it so that the original author would affirm your grasp of its essential meaning. That sounds like a bold goal. It is. That is why we can’t just study until we feel a message emerging. As preachers we can generate messages out of nothing. But God has given us something very specific. And unless we grow in our confidence that it is possible to communicate the essential meaning of a passage to a level where the original author would affirm our explanation, then we will not put in the work necessary to be ready to preach.
Implication? The big implication of this post is simple. Don’t be so confident that you know the meaning of a passage. Study more. Study longer. Study humble. Study persistently. Make it your goal to know the passage better than you ever have before, to be able to handle questions about specific aspects of the passage, and be willing to explain the meaning of the text even to the original author himself…and then start thinking about how you will preach it!
During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.
As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:
Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.
What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?
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!
As I think about preaching I am increasingly convinced that we need to communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical text. I am sure that seems obvious, but many fall into one of the following errors and half-measures:
1. Preaching the details and history of the text, without making the redemptive relevance clear. This could be preaching a text as if it were a historical lecture, or it could be applying a text as if what we need is example to follow and instruction to implement.
2. Preaching the good news using a biblical text, without demonstrating clearly how the message comes from that text. This could be a theologically brilliant presentation, but if it is unclear how you got there from the passage presented, then you are not honouring the theology of the gospel brilliantly. You might be a good communicator, your message might be technically accurate in every detail, but if there is a leap from text to message, then you are undermining the foundational reality that God is a good communicator.
3. Preaching our own message with only token reference to the text. This is the neither/or option. It uses the text as launch pad, or as a curiosity, or as a source of wording, but we preach what we want to say, and it is not the message of the text. If what we want to say is redemptive rather than merely therapeutic or pressuring, then maybe we drift up into option 2.
I think we will tend to drift into one of these options by default. Let’s be prayerful and careful to preach the redemptive relevance of the biblical text instead.
In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while. If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again? If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.
So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while. Here is something to ponder:
Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners? Will the message be text specific? Will it make clear that passage’s main idea? Will it draw out that passage’s implications?
It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message. The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none. Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?
If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage. Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible. Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way. Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?
If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again. Don’t miss the opportunity!
This is a slippery one. The moment a question is raised about a message, some will jump to the defense of the preacher by asserting that what was said was true, even if it was not exactly the truth of the passage being preached. Let’s knock around a few comments on this:
A. Most of us have mis-preached and should be grateful for God’s graciousness. I would not want every old sermon scrutinized and held over me, and I suspect you would not either. This is not about nitpicking through every word preached and being judge and jury of orthodoxy. However, in balance with this first thought are those that follow.
B. What the Bible says matters. While we do want to be gracious to one another, we also need to remember that we are handling the Word of God. Every single word is given by inspiration and we will in no way be honouring God if we take matters of accurate text handling and interpretation lightly.
C. What the listener reads matters. Here is the sticking point. Just because what a preacher says is true does not mean that saying it from the wrong passage is acceptable. Listeners may be looking at the biblical text as the sermon is proclaimed. It does not matter that they are hearing truth, if that truth is falsely tied to another biblical text that does not mean what is being said. The integrity of the messenger and message matter. Even if the message spoken were biblically true, it matters if listeners are looking at their Bibles and scratching their heads. We do not want to give the impression that the authority for the message is birthed out of the ingenuity of the preacher. Are we comfortable with someone preaching biblical truth from an appliance instruction manual, or from a kid’s book of fairy tales? Then we should not settle too easily for misappropriated biblical texts either.