From Hermeneutics to Homiletics

Learning to Rightly Divide Scripture, from the Study to the Pulpit

Before a man may ever stand behind a pulpit, he must learn to handle the Word of God well. This begins in his approach to reading and understanding the Bible on his own. He must understand where meaning is found in Scripture, and work diligently to understand the author's intention. Once he grasps the meaning, he must submit himself entirely to it. This becomes the rhythm of his life—seeking with all his mind to understand Scripture, and then placing himself under the full weight of its authority and bending his life into submission. This is a joyous submission, as through this process he learns to see and savor Christ.

A man who develops these patterns in his time alone with the Lord may be asked to shepherd others. And then his understanding of Scripture becomes all the more important, as his handling of the text will be the only example of hermeneutics, or rules of interpretation, his listeners may ever receive.  He must learn to communicate the intention of the biblical authors in such a way that he brings it to bear upon the lives of his listeners, applying it to them personally, in such a way that not only do their hearts long for Christ, but so does his. And most importantly, he must explain the Word of God in such a way that he need not be ashamed. 

This is a complicated and lengthy journey. We hope you'll find this guide useful.

 

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Table of Contents

  1. What Does This Verse Mean to You? Finding Meaning in Scripture
  2. Mistaking the Voice of Man for the Voice of God
  3. Objectivity and the Interpretation of Scripture
  4. Should We Interpret the Old Testament Like the Apostles?
  5. Does Your Hermeneutic Hold to Sola Scriptura?
  6. A Hermeneutic of Surrender
  7. The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching
  8. Begging: The Place to Start
  9. The Expositor's Distinction: Tethered to the Text
  10. What Makes a Good Sermon?
  11. Should We Preach Christ from Every Text?
  12. Preaching to the Hurting
  13. The Danger of Being Funny in the Pulpit
  14. How Long Should a Sermon Be?

What Does This Verse Mean to You? Finding Meaning in Scripture

It is not difficult to imagine the following scenario because many of us have experienced it. A group of people gather for food, fellowship, and Bible study. The initiator of the gathering thanks everyone for just “showing up.” He reads a verse and then asks the pivotal question, What does this verse mean to you? It takes a few moments but soon the responses flow. “To me, this verse means . . .” There is growing enthusiasm as the people offer their opinions. The initiator affirms each answer. After all, the Bible study is a safe zone—a venue for much-needed self-expression and acceptance. Anything goes (unless, of course, an answer critiques what someone else just said!).

But how can this be? We recognize that this approach wreaks havoc when applied in everyday life—whether teaching students, paying mortgage bills, driving on public highways, or building human relationships. We especially object when others treat our own words this way. Yet when it comes to the Bible, almost anything goes. Its language is treated as if it is exempt from the same laws of communication and understanding that apply in everyday life. Sadly, the Bible is the most abused book in human history.

This challenges us to consider several fundamental questions: What is meaning, and who has the authority to determine it?

The first question can be answered simply. 'Meaning' refers to the content of a communication which a writer or speaker consciously willed to convey by the words and grammar he used. Stated negatively, meaning is not what a reader or listener feels; it is not what a reader or listener presupposes; and it is not what a reader or listener creates. The reader or listener does not contribute anything to meaning. Instead, the meaning of any kind of communication—oral speech, written text, or hand gestures—is centered in the communicator and not the recipient.

If we truly believe the Bible is what it says it is, the revelation of God, then it is nothing short of blasphemous to believe that we—its recipients—contribute to its meaning. As “revelation,” the Bible is the product of God’s activity to reveal knowledge to us—knowledge that we could otherwise never know. That is why Paul calls the Scriptures “the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). They are God’s sermons to us. That is why Paul also describes the Scriptures as “inspired by God”—or more literally “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). Their message originates in God alone. The meaning of biblical texts is in no way dependent upon its readers. It exists whether readers recognize it or not.

And who has the authority to determine meaning? 

The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, the authority to determine meaning is located solely in the author himself. The author must be given the first and last word about the meaning of his text.

On the other hand, a derivative kind of authority also exists. Interpreters today derive authority from the author when they interpret his text consistent with his intent. Thus, to the extent that an interpreter refuses to lean on his own understanding and instead submits to the will of the author, he has authority to tell others “what the text means.”

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Mistaking the Voice of Man for the Voice of God

The consequences for misinterpretation can be deadly. It is estimated that seven thousand people die each year from errors related to the misinterpretation of a doctor’s prescription. This means two Americans died in the last hour because a doctor’s instructions were misread. The number of interpretive errors causing non-fatal but nonetheless serious harm to the health of patients is significantly higher.

No one would dare to argue to the thousands of families who have lost loved ones that accurate interpretation is a not matter of life and death. Yet this is exactly what many do with the Bible. Some argue this aggressively. Interpretations of Scripture are neither correct nor incorrect, they say. Whatever meaning the biblical text has to an individual will be different for different people, or even different for the same person from one day to the next. Judging the validity of an interpretation is not only unnecessary, but offensive—a shameful attempt to assert control over others. To challenge readers on the accuracy of their interpretation is viewed as a subtle attempt to bully believers back into the Dark Ages, a time when the Bible was kept out of the hands of the people and only the religious elite were deemed fit to interpret it correctly.

Others may not articulate these arguments, but they apply them in their everyday handling of the Bible. Their haphazard approach reveals an underlying conviction that inaccurate interpretation has few, if any, harmful side effects. What is most important is that a person uses the Bible. How he or she uses it doesn’t matter. After all, God is gracious.

This raises the question: Is it even necessary to think about how we interpret the Bible? Does it really matter? Bernard Ramm helps us consider what really is at stake:

To determine what God has said is a high and holy task. With fear and trembling each should be ever so careful of that which he has adopted as his method of biblical interpretation. Upon the correct interpretation of the Bible rests our doctrine of salvation, of sanctification, of eschatology, and of Christian living. It is our solemn responsibility to know what God has said with reference to each of these. This can be done only if we have carefully, thoroughly, and systematically formulated that system of biblical interpretation which will yield most readily the native [original] meaning of the Bible.

Further, we need to know the correct method of Biblical interpretation so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man. In every one of those places where our interpretation is at fault, we have made substitution of the voice of man for the voice of God. We need to know hermeneutics thoroughly if for no other reason than to preserve us from the folly and errors of faulty principles of understanding.

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Objectivity and the Interpretation of Scripture

 The term “exegesis” comes from a compound Greek word which literally means to lead or guide out of. Therefore, “exegesis” came to refer to the act of interpretation because it carried the notion of “leading out of a text its meaning.”

But when bias is permitted to influence the interpretive process, a preconceived understanding is read into the text. This is called “eisegesis.” The exact opposite of exegesis, “eisegesis” means to lead or guide into. Eisegesis occurs when the interpreter takes steps to contribute meaning to the biblical text. He looks for evidence that confirms his preunderstanding, ignores details in the text that refute it, manipulates the data, and concludes that the text “means” what he already believed it to mean. As a result, the authority of the biblical text is muted even while it is being claimed. In some way the reader’s understanding has still not submitted to the full intent of the writer. His bias governs interpretation.

What James says regarding the misuse of the tongue we can also apply to our handling of Scripture: “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). One is either naïve or dishonest to claim that he never dons the lens of bias. But rather than working harder to neutralize this subjectivity and believing this to be a worthy pursuit, interpreters are increasingly waving the white flag and embracing bias as good and necessary. In fact, it is not unusual today to hear claims from today’s prominent evangelicals that the Bible cannot be understood unless it is read through the “lenses” of particular social, economic, ethnic, or sexual identities.

The result is a fracturing of the church into a myriad of groups sparring over which bias is of greater value for reading Scripture. The purpose of interpretation then is not to labor to lead out of the text that one objective meaning—that meaning which is the same for all social, economic, ethnic, and sexual identities. Worse than that, this glorying in bias decreases Christians’ confidence in the Bible, leading many to echo the question of the Serpent himself, “Indeed, has God said?” (Gen 3:1).

Indeed, God has said. And because he has, the reader is obligated to remove bias, lenses, preunderstandings, prejudice, or whatever they may be called. He must make it his ambition to engage in exegesis in the real sense—not by name only, but in reality. He must aspire to be the kind of exegete Luther had in mind when he stated, “The best teacher is the one who does not bring his meaning into the Scripture but gets his meaning from the Scripture.”

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Should We Interpret the Old Testament Like the Apostles?

To even ask the question seems sacrilegious.

We unashamedly adhere to the apostles’ view of the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Old Testament. So, if they are our standard for determining the nature of Scripture, they must surely be our standard for determining its interpretation. Anything contrary would seem to be unbiblical.

But the issue is not as simple as it first seems—and for several reasons.

First, even those who answer this question in the affirmative disagree over exactly how the apostles interpreted the Old Testament.

Second, a considerable amount of disagreement over the apostles' use of the Old Testament can be traced to poor exegesis of the Old Testament texts done by today's interpreters. It is often not the New Testament writers who are ignoring the original meaning of Old Testament texts, but contemporary readers.

Third, it is widely acknowledged that there were various purposes behind the apostles' use of the Old Testament. Sometimes the apostles cited the Old Testament to point to literal fulfillment. Other times they referenced an Old Testament text to make an application of a universal moral principle. Occasionally they simply cited a text to show that a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy was still future. Often, they merely used Old Testament language as a vehicle of expression. It is overly simplistic to describe the apostles' use of the Old Testament as 'exegesis' or 'interpretation.' 

Fourth, when it comes to issues related to Christian faith and practice, we readily acknowledge the difference in Scripture between the descriptive and the prescriptive. To see a kind of uniqueness involved in the apostles’ use of the Old Testament does not undermine a high view of Scripture or strike at the heart of the Christian faith. To the contrary, it upholds it. It recognizes an authority and privilege that existed among the apostles that is not shared by all believers.

Finally, the New Testament apostles were channels of direct revelations, whereas readers are interpreters. A high view of Scripture requires us to view the apostles' experience in receiving and handling God's word as fundamentally different than ours.

Ultimately, the critical question which must occupy the interpreter’s mind is not, “Can I imitate the way in which the New Testament apostles exegeted the Old Testament?” Rather, it is, “What must I do to listen to the biblical writer?” Whether in the Old or New Testament, the interpreter’s responsibility is to become a slave to the writer who penned the text before him. It is by pursuing this path that the authoritative character of the biblical text will resound without impediment.

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Does Your Hermeneutic Hold to Sola Scriptura?

Our commitment to Sola Scriptura leads to a commitment to hermeneutics—to how we study the Bible. Hermeneutics matters because it determines whether we, in practice, hold to Sola Scriptura.

Every time we open our Bibles, we need to be ready to say only what Scripture says, to work hard to know all it says, and not to have excuses that would undermine any of its implications. Sola Scriptura leads to a hermeneutic of absolute surrender so that what we have in the end is the Scripture, and nothing but the Scripture.

At that point, people will not only hear us declare Sola Scriptura, but they will see it etched into our very lives.

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A Hermeneutic of Surrender

As widely-acclaimed and biblical as the maxim 'actions speak louder than words' is, there is one realm where it is often overlooked. “Action”—or what can be better called “obedience”—is all too often neglected in the study of Scripture. We profess our interpretations, sometimes very passionately. But sadly, such assertions regularly speak louder than our obedience.

With respect to the average reader, this neglect can be caused by a host of factors. In some cases, especially in those where the reader works hard at exegesis, it is tempting to treat “interpretation” as synonymous with “application.” Understanding the author's intent is deemed tantamount to obeying the author's intent. 

In other cases, the reader settles for a kind of superficial application—a kind that produces just enough change to give him confidence that he is a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” but not enough to require the high price of placing his whole self under the text’s full authority. Other factors could be cited, but all told, true obedience is hard work. Its costs are enormous. In fact, it can be confidently stated that it is easier to apply sound principles of interpretation to a text than it is to apply the results of that interpretation to one’s own life. It is easier to be more industrious in the study of a text than in its application.

The reality is that it is fairly easy to make a strong profession about the nature of the text of Scripture—professions relating to such qualities as inerrancy and sufficiency—while still avoiding the authority of that text. We must not deceive ourselves. We can make eloquent and powerful arguments in response to Scripture’s critics, but still be “hearers only.” We can win the battle for the Bible as the inerrant word of God, but easily fail to fashion our lives and churches under the authority of that word.

Affirming belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is no substitute for living out the authority of Scripture. While we do well to continue refuting the skeptics of Scripture, our ultimate aim must always be obedience. This, after all, is what true scholarship is about—knowledge so well understood that it cannot be help influence life. The alternative is an annoying hypocrisy. To borrow from the language of the apostle Paul, “If we speak about the inerrancy of Scripture with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not obey, we have become noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.”

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The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching

The only logical response to inerrant Scripture is to preach expositionally. By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God.

Expository preaching is the proclamation of the truth of God as mediated through the preacher. The expositor's task is to preach the mind of God as he finds it in the inerrant word of God. 

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Begging: The Place to Start

We are guilty of arrogance, not merely neglect, when we fail to beg for the Spirit’s help in the study of Scripture. We may have such arrogance even when we seem to be seeking the Spirit’s aid – I think of those times when in a light-headed tokenism we utter our slap-happy prayer 'that the Lord would guide and direct us as we study this passage.'

One shudders to think how flippant we are.

But how many more times we neglect any overt seeking of the Spirit’s help! The pressure is on. The passage must be studied for the sermon or lesson. We pull out our exegetical notes; we grab several of the better commentaries off the shelf; make sure one Bible dictionary of choice is close at hand. Deep into our study time, the thought occurs to us that we have not looked – nor did we think of looking – to the God who breathed out this Scripture to give us an understanding of the Scripture. He will likely give that understanding through the tools we use, but when we use tools while neglecting Him, the tools have become idols.

We may have a high view of the Bible; we may be distraught because large sectors of the church seem to ignore its authority. Yet in our own Scripture work, we easily ignore its chief Interpreter. Professionalism rather than piety drives us. We needn’t be surprised at our sterility and poverty if we refuse to be beggars for the Spirit’s help.

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The Expositor's Distinction: Tethered to the Text

Walter Kaiser, a leading evangelical scholar, issued a simple but striking statement in his commencement address at Dallas Theological Seminary in April 2000 – a stirring challenge that should grip the hearts of all who are called to the ministry of biblical preaching and teaching. Those who enter the pulpit to preach, Kaiser admonished, should always be pointing to
a text of Scripture.

When a man preaches, he should never remove his finger from the Scriptures, Kaiser charged. If he is gesturing with his right hand, he should keep his left hand’s finger on the text. If he reverses hands for gesturing, then he should also reverse hands for holding his spot in the text.

He should always be pointing to the Scriptures.

This is sound advice. Both literally and figuratively, the preacher should always be pointing to a biblical text. This Word-centered focus in the pulpit is the defining mark of all true expositors. Those who preach and teach the Word are to be so deeply rooted and grounded in the Scriptures that they never depart from them, ever directing themselves as well as their listeners to its truths.

Biblical preaching should be just that – biblical – and all who stand in the pulpit must show an unwavering, even relentless, commitment to the Scripture itself. As a practicing physician knows and prescribes medicine, so every preacher should be ever studying, learning, and dispensing heavy doses of the healing balm of God’s Word to all patients. Whatever the ailment, there is but one cure for the soul – the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God to the human heart.

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What Makes a Good Sermon?

Most people would say they know a good sermon when they hear one. Yet, listing the specific characteristics is a more difficult task. For preachers, knowing the answer to "What makes a good sermon?" is crucial.

Based on Scripture and my own pastoral experience, I propose that a good sermon is when a man of God, controlled by the Spirit of God, preaches the Word of God, for the glory of God, to transform listeners into God’s likeness.

A Man of God 

Robert Murry M’Cheyne put it this way: “It is not great talents that God blesses so much as it is great likeness to God.” The ability to influence people in (and out of) the pulpit is founded upon character, holiness, and experience drawn from the well of one who walks closely with God. Without these assets, all the homiletical, exegetical, and theological skills in the world mean little.

A simple pastor who doesn’t have much formal training but who possesses a weighty relationship with God and solid character can preach more powerful sermons than a highly trained preacher who lacks a depth of character and love of God. We must take care not to sacrifice "abiding in the Vine" for more head knowledge.

Controlled by the Spirit

With godly character as the foundation, powerful teaching is a result of being controlled by the Spirit of God. How could spiritual change be produced without the Spirit? Can real orange juice come from anything other than oranges? Neither can spiritual fruit come without the Spirit.

Without His involvement, our preaching will be nothing more than what any other human could produce – like that of a motivational speaker. God save us from such preaching! While human wisdom might produce temporary, superficial change and popularity, it won't bear the lasting fruit that is pleasing to God. Life change in our listeners for God's glory can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit was taken out of your preaching ministry would anyone notice a difference?  Would you?

Preach the Word of God

The foundation of a good sermon is always the Word of God. “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2) means to preach not ourselves, or our wisdom, but His.

The Greek word in this verse that is translated as “preach” (κήρυξον) means “to herald, to publicly proclaim, to preach.” Its noun form (κῆρυξ) was used to describe a herald, or proclaimer, who was highly regarded by his master and served him in many capacities. One of those responsibilities was to proclaim the king’s message to the people. This might have been done at a market, a festival, a sporting competition, or some other public event. But wherever it was done, the herald’s task consisted of one thing: to proclaim clearly the message of the king, without addition or subtraction. It is His Word that transforms and changes hearts as we submit to His inspired Scripture. If we do our job right, at the end of the sermon, the focus should be on God.

Preaching the Word of God should include at least two things: explanation and application. These two emphases distinguish a good sermon from a devotional talk, lecture, or running commentary on exegetical discoveries. A devotional talk given from the pulpit often warms the heart and applies a spiritual lesson to life, but is also short on biblical substance and explanation. On the other hand, a lecture presented as a sermon may be high in biblical content but often lacks passion and application. A sermon that is only a running commentary on the results of exegesis is not a good sermon because it lacks the pastor's thoughtful application to the audience.

For the Glory of God

The goal of every Christian is “whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Obviously, that is the goal of every good sermon. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). When we preach, the focus should not be on us: how well we are doing, how clever our outline is, how impressive our exegesis, oratory and knowledge of Greek or Hebrew are, or how much people like what we say.

If we do our job right, at the end of the sermon, the focus should be on God—what He said and what He desires in response. When the sermon is over our goal is not to have people think, “Wow what a great preacher!” but, “Wow, what an amazing God!”

To Transform Listeners into God's Likeness

The powerful instrument God uses to renew our minds is His Word (Heb 4:12). A key goal as we preach is that He would use the sermon to transform us into His likeness (2 Cor 3:18). Hearing and understanding the Word isn’t enough. Deep heart change is critical. We are to prove ourselves “doers of the word, not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). Jesus Himself said that as we make disciples, we are to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). God can accomplish that through us when a man of God, controlled by the Spirit of God, preaches the Word of God, for the glory of God, to transform listeners into God’s likeness.

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Should We Preach Christ from Every Text?

We need to determine if we should preach Christ from every text of Scripture. 

It is of the utmost seriousness when people suggest that preaching which is not Christocentric does not honor Christ. I'm confident that none of us want to be guilty of dishonoring our Savior. Rather, we want to exalt Christ and proclaim the truth. Such a suggestion should make us wonder if expository preaching, based upon a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, is sufficient to honor the Lord Jesus Christ. 

In essence, the Christocentric hermeneutic attempts to find Christ as the subject or topic of every text. It desires to show that every text relates directly to Christ, which is why some say it is the only true method of Christian preaching.

The problem ensues when the Christocentric hermeneutic applies this mindset to texts that do not call for it. Some of the results should make you feel a bit uncomfortable.

For example, the Christocentric hermeneutic has argued the darkness that surrounded Abraham at the founding of the Abrahamic covenant parallels Christ's own darkness at the cross. Samson's rejection of his tribe mirrors how Jesus would be rejected. David and Goliath is a picture of how the ultimate David will re-vanquish sin, Satan, and death. The death of Nathan at the hand of false witness is a picture of Christ's own death at the hand of false witness. Esther's willingness to sacrifice her own life is a picture of the willingness of Jesus to sacrifice His own life. These are just some of the ways the Christocentric hermeneutic interprets Scripture.

However, there are problems with the method. The passages that the Christocentric hermeneutic appeals to do not necessarily warrant their approach. 1 Corinthians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 2:2, and 2 Corinthians 4:5 contextually do not speak of preaching Christ as the only doctrine of Scripture. After all, Paul does not do that. He speaks of various doctrines from the OT, like the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Instead, these passages speak of preaching Christ as opposed to one’s self (2 Corinthians 4:5) as the central point of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 2:2). These texts do not go as far as the Christocentric hermeneutic desires.

How do we honor Christ in our study and proclamation of Scripture? We revere Christ not only by exalting Him in the pulpit, but also by hermeneutical obedience in the study. After all, we have seen that Jesus affirmed the prophets’ intent as the meaning of the OT. This grammatical-historical approach is the approach of the prophets who are climaxed in Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2) and the apostles who were sent by Him (John 16:13). This is the hermeneutic of Scripture.

This does not lessen the glory of Christ in Scripture. Rather, it unleashes it. By studying the theology of the OT, we gain the full theological breadth of Scripture. This framework not only tells us truth and how to live, but also amplifies the person and work of Christ. We need to have confidence that the method prescribed in Scripture is sufficient to showcase the complete glory of Christ. We do not need to force a text to connect with Christ, but rather we need to invest the time and effort in seeing the way the biblical writers connect God’s Word with the Word. Then, as we exposit the full counsel of God, we can glorify Christ in hermeneutical obedience as we proclaim Him fully.

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Preaching to the Hurting

Nothing is more helpful to the pastor's soul than to preach theology that bears immediate impact. As pastors, our hearts should yearn to connect the Word of God to the hearts of His people. In a culture of consumerism and neo-positivity, the psalms of lament bring a refreshing balance of reality to our lives as we seek to treasure God from the darkest of valleys.

In the psalms of lament, we encounter life and theology in their most raw forms. When the trials of life strike, there is no room for useless theological banter. Sorrow forces us to come to grips with the realities of this world and, more importantly, the beauty and benevolence of the God who reigns. 

Preaching the psalms of lament is a massive theological distillation process. All the hypotheticals or wrongly held beliefs are stripped away by the honest heart cries of the psalmist. They expose both man and God for who they are.

Theology is too often relegated to musty seminary halls or to the dwindling minds of introverts; but theology belongs in the darkness and pain of life. The psalms of lament remind us that theology is satisfyingly real. People need this brand of theology coursing through their veins, and so do pastors. So dwell on them, use them to cry out to the Lord, and preach them to your hurting sheep.

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The Danger of Being Funny in the Pulpit

There is a necessary place for laughter in life. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that, “There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh.” There is a time for humor. Laughter and wit are both common graces granted to us so that we can enjoy the ironies and absurdities of life. There are many appropriate moments when laughter (and the humor that fuels it) can be a profound blessing, especially to those who are going through prolonged trials. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22). Therefore, even sermons can occasionally contain humor.

It’s not that humor need always to be avoided in preaching. Yet, because the superficiality of our culture is in such dire opposition to the seriousness of the Scriptures, it is important for pastors to know that there are at least three dangers connected to humor in the pulpit: (1) It can demean the dignity of the pastor; (2) It can trivialize the meaning of the message; and (3) it can desensitize a congregation. 

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once told a story about a clown that summarized this danger well. He wrote, “It happened that a fire broke out backstage at a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke” (Either/Or, 1:30).

Let us never be the clowns crying “Fire!” to the applause of our congregation.

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How Long Should a Sermon Be?

One of the best answers to this question was given by John MacArthur in his book Rediscovering Expository Preaching. He explained that a sermon should last:

As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately! I do not think the length of the sermon is as important as its content. . . .The important thing is to cover the main points so that people are convinced of its truth and comprehend its requirements. If you have nothing worthwhile to say, even twenty minutes will seem like an eternity to your people.

The message must last long enough for the text to be rightly explained and the practical implications properly developed. Depending on the length of the passage, it is difficult to imagine this being done well in 20 minutes.

The more believers understand His Word, the more they will see how glorious He truly is.

Here is the simple reason I believe churches should not constrain their pastors to preach short sermons—the better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually (1 Pet. 2:2). This is a basic principle of Christian living, but it is ignored by many.

I understand that the brain can only absorb what the seat can endure. But if you are able to maintain the congregation’s attention longer with excellent exposition, they will gain a better understanding of the truth of God. The more they understand His Word, the more they will see how glorious He truly is. And the more they behold His glory, the more they will be transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:13).

Ultimately, the question is not, “How long do you preach?” The question is, “How well are you helping others to behold God’s glory in your preaching?” To do that, it requires a significant amount of preparation, prioritized time during the worship service, much prayer, and the grace of God.

How long can your sermon be without losing the attention of the congregation? Some of that depends on who the preacher is, some of it depends on how long the passage is, but most of it depends on how well the preacher knows the text.

In short, if the preacher knows the text well and can hold the attention of his flock, he can preach for as long as he likes.

Or, as John Stott said, “It doesn’t matter how long you preach, it should feel like twenty minutes.”

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The Simple Call to Know the Word

Dr. MacArthur discusses the heart of what it means to be a preacher in his book, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically,

What is it that equips a man to be qualified for preaching responsibility? Certainly I could argue for the following elements: reverence for God, respect for the dignity of pastoral duty, good sense, sound judgment, clear and deep thinking, love of reading, commitment to diligent study, and meditation. A good memory, graceful command of words, knowledge of society's thinking are also essential traits. Uncommon talent and effort are needed to explain obscure passages of Scripture, to resolve intricate applications of the Word to lives, and to defend the truth against opposers. All these are duties at the heart of the preacher's life and ministry. 

A small amount of skill and ability alone will never enable a preacher to teach sound doctrine, expound on the deep things of God, convince the stubborn mind, capture the affections and will, or spread light over dark realities so as to eliminate the shadows of confusion, ignorance, objections, prejudice, temptation, and deceit. Above all, if the preacher is to detect the errors of his hearers and if he is to free men from their strongholds of ignorance, convince their consciences, stop their mouths, and fulfill his responsibility to proclaim all the counsel of God, he must be skilled in the Word. This is the preacher's only weapon, the most powerful, two-edged sword of the Word, which alone cuts to the depths of the soul and spirit. 

Our prayer is that you would learn to handle the Word of God faithfully, that your mind and soul would see and savor Christ more clearly, and that you might be able to help others as they learn to do the same.