Preaching and Word Studies

These things tend to go in cycles.  For preachers trained in one era, preaching almost amounted to communicating the fruit of word studies.  Some years later and there is almost no evidence of skill in this area.  Let’s ponder some issues of methodology and implementation.

1. Word study is only one part of the passage study process, which is only one part of the message preparation process.  That means that we shouldn’t see preaching as a sequence of interesting definitions.  “…the next word I want you to notice is the word rock in the third verse. The word rock that David uses here means…”  This is not really preaching.  We need to thoroughly integrate our word study insights into our understanding of the passage as a whole, which then needs to be shaped into a message as a whole.

2. Word study matters because words matter.  We need to keep this skill in context, and we also need to keep it in view.  That is to say, as a student of the Bible, I need to take every word seriously.  In bibliology we may refer to “verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture.”  This means that we affirm God’s inspiration of the words (verbal), all of them (plenary).  To dismiss word study in favour of discourse analysis is to swing the pendulum too far.  To dismiss word study in favour of not studying the passage indicates a deeper issue in our view of God and the Bible.

3. Words hunt in packs.  To put that another way, a word on its own is not that helpful.  It has been fun to observe my children learning to read (and helping, of course).  Once they are set loose into the world of books there is no limit to what they can learn.  But suddenly they get past the “Bobby hit the ball to Suzie” stuff and start to meet words they’ve never met before.  “Daddy, what does snuff mean?” or “Daddy, what’s a cue?”  Like all good parents, my response is  to ask a question in response: “Can you tell me the whole sentence?”  This context allows me to make sense of that word for them in that place.  As we study individual words , we must always remember that we are studying them to make sense of them in a particular sentence, in a particular paragraph, in a particular unit of Scripture.

Tomorrow we’ll get into some more specifics on the how-to side of things . . .

Insightful Incidentals?

Whatever passage you are preaching, there will be opportunity to make passing comments about relatively minor details.  Of course, all Scripture is God-breathed and there is no such thing as a non-essential word in the Bible.  But a high commitment to verbal plenary inspiration (i.e. the words are inspired, all of them), does not mean every word can become a preaching point on a whim.

So what sort of insightful incidental comments are best left unsaid altogether?  Tomorrow I’ll address the potentially appropriate ones, but for now, just the baddies:

1. Distracting moralisms – For example, the preacher is working through the story of Zaccheus’ encounter with Jesus.  The setup is finished, Jesus has just called Zac down from the tree and there is an interim comment before the big scene in his house.  The interim comment is about the crowds grumbling.  Cue preacher going off on a gentle tirade about grumbling and how bad that is for a church.  A couple of wilderness quotes, the threat of excessive quail dinners and then the diversion is over, back to Zac’s dinner table.  Oops.  And then some.  This story has nothing to do with whether people should grumble or not.  Actually, if the preacher had observed more closely, it would have become clear that the comment by Luke is not wasted at all.  The crowds grumbled at Jesus!  Here is the key point in the story, the moment when Jesus diverts anger onto himself to free up sinner Zac.  By looking for a moralistic application point, the preacher has missed the transformational gold of grace in action.  Chances are, after missing that, the same preacher might go on to make Zac’s proclamation of distribution into part of his salvation negotiations, rather than the pure response that it actually is.

2. Errant critiques – For example, the preacher is working through the story of the blind man healed in two stages.  In this case he hadn’t given any attention to the preceding content in Mark 6-8, which is so critical to understanding this unique story.  Getting to the end of the passage, his eyes are drawn by the red ink of Jesus’ words in verse 26.  “Do not enter the village.”  Voila!  Preaching point.  We don’t do follow-up these days!  We need to learn from Jesus.  Jesus didn’t just heal, he also gave instruction.  Don’t go back into the world.  Just follow me.  Etc. Etc.  Meanwhile the more astute listeners have their eyes on the text wondering how the preacher missed the first half of the verse.  Did Jesus ask this blind man to follow him?  Or did he actually send him to his home?  It is perilous to be looking for preaching points, rather than really reading the passage to understand it.

3. Personal soapboxes – I’m out of words, but you know what I mean.  The slightest hint in a passage and off goes the preacher on a personal crusade.

So easy to preach in vague connection to a text.  So much safer and better to preach the message of the text.