Word by Word Preaching: Why Not?

I don’t hear this label used as much as verse-by-verse preaching, but I have come across it.  On the surface, again, it sounds like it fits right in with a high view of Scripture and an expository view of preaching.  But again, I think it could lead preachers into some unhelpful practices that aren’t truly expository.

Some thoughts to chew on:

1. Every word is a doorway to endless digressions, but how they are working together is the real issue.  If you have read the Bible or anything vaguely theological, or if you own a concordance, then any word can be the start of a digression.  There are times when cross-referencing is helpful, but it has to be helpful to something specific.  That is, it cannot be an end in itself.  So you have to study the whole passage in order to know what the main idea is, and then determine whether pursuing the thoughts a word might spark would actually help the communication of that main idea.

2. Every word can slow you down, but you need to give the message of the passage.  This follows on from number 1.  Since each word, or even each theologically weighty word, can be the start of a digression in your explanation, it follows that every word can slow you down in preaching.  For instance, I can imagine someone preaching Ephesians 1:15-23 in this way and running out of time before really preaching the heart of the passage in verses 18-19, or the elaboration of the final element in the subsequent verses.  Just because verses 15-17 contain some mighty terms doesn’t change the fact that Paul is really introducing at that point.  Preach them, but don’t miss the message of the passage.

3. Every word should be studied, but not every word should be “preached.”  Some preachers feel it is their duty to offer a concise word study and chain reference guide for every term in the passage that seems weighty.  Study them all.  Preach the passage.

4. Every last word is inspired, but they are not equally weighted.  I would hold to a verbal plenary inspiration position.  That is, God inspired the words (verbum), all of them (plenary).  That doesn’t mean that I treat them as individual data banks and thought units when preaching.  In any sentence, the meaning is conveyed by a combination of the potential meaning of each word, determined by its function and role within the flow of the sentence and broader context.

Study the words, study the details, do the work.  And the work includes the integration of that study.  What is the author trying to communicate?  What are you trying to communicate to your listeners?  Then, preach the passage.

Word Studies 4 – Using the Fruit

This week we have been pondering the importance of word studies.  It is vital that we take the words of Scripture seriously, and thereby make our preaching as accurate and effective as possible.  So let’s say we’ve identified key words in a passage, pivotal terms on which the passage turns, and we’ve studied them to get a good sense of what the author meant by choosing those particular terms.  How do we use the fruit of the study in our preaching?  Here are some suggestions:

1. Default to smooth integration.  The majority of word study work that you do in your study need not show in your preaching.  By show, I mean overt reference to it.  The default should be that the study you’ve done is hidden, but the explanation you give is accurate.  Sometimes I would even go for smooth integration when I think the translation isn’t the best.  So I will read it as is, and then subtly state a preferred translation.  No fuss, no critique, just staying on track for effective explanation.  I think this is a good default.

2. Underline word studies sparingly and strategically.  There are advantages to sometimes letting some of the word study show overtly.  Perhaps you go to a couple of familiar or enlightening uses of the term, to give a taste of the process and help people see why you explain it as you do.  If this is done too much it will lose its impact.  Choose to show the word study more overtly in strategic moments – perhaps when the term is critical to the passage as a whole, or at least to a major point in the passage.

3. Avoid original language flaunting.  I know it is tempting to let your Hebrew or Greek hang out.  And if you haven’t studied it, it may be even more tempting to show you’ve read heavy commentaries.  I also know that some people will shake your hand and thank you for the wonderful insight into the original language.  What neither of us know is how many in your congregation are sitting there feeling linguistically inadequate, assuming that you can find things in the Word they never could, and therefore feeling less motivated to read the Bible between now and when you preach again.  Typically there is no need to refer to the actual term, just say “in the original” or “the word Paul uses here . . . ”

Tomorrow I’ll finish the list with three more suggestions on using the fruit of Word Studies.


Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.