From Hermeneutics to Homiletics
Learning to Rightly Interpret 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.
Table of Contents
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Can the Unconverted Rightly Interpret Scripture?
It is important to note that Paul in 1 Cor. 2:14 does not limit his assessment of the unbeliever’s aptitude to the mere application of biblical truth to everyday life. Because of the effects of the Fall on the entire being, the unregenerate man is both morally biased against the plain meaning of the text (v. 14a) and intellectually incapable of embracing its message (v. 14b). As Paul says elsewhere, the unregenerate “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom 1:18, 25). They are “darkened in understanding” and demonstrate “hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). And this is further compounded by the fact that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4).
It also cannot be missed that Paul does not limit this assessment to a particular category of the unconverted. His assertions in 1 Corinthians 2:14 do not merely describe barbarians and Scythians, the illiterate and irreligious, the boorish and the naïve. In fact, the broader context of 1 Corinthians 2:14 demonstrates that Paul’s assertions relate specifically to the elite of the world—to the powerful and educated, to the Jew and to the Gentile, to the biblical scholars of Jerusalem and to the erudite philosophers of Athens (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25).
So, what implications does 1 Cor. 2:14 have for the Christian seeking the wisdom of God’s word? Here are a few:
- Do not be shaken by allegations of factual errors and moral inconsistencies in the Bible asserted by those claiming to be biblical scholars. Yes, such allegations must be taken seriously, and it is the responsibility of evangelical exegetes to provide thorough and respectful responses. But recognize that skepticism to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture is natural to the unconverted scholar.
- Do not be overly impressed with degrees in biblical studies attained at Ivy League schools. The history of evangelical institutions of higher learning is replete with illustrations of how this inordinate respect for prestigious, secular education commonly leads to doctrinal compromise.
- Be very careful about whom you allow to influence the development of your convictions and the exercise of your reason. This is especially important in the early years of the Christian life, before one’s aptitude in discernment has increased. Find a church that truly believes the Bible to be the word of God. Learn from elders who are fully submitted to the lordship of Christ as mediated by his word. If you need training for ministry, find the school that is unashamed in its commitment to biblical authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy. Believe the psalmist when he writes, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1).
- When choosing resources for Bible study, look for writers who are unashamedly evangelical. Look for those whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2), and who approach the biblical text not with skepticism but with the hermeneutic of submission.
- Remember that methodologies and worldviews are never neutral. Whether it is higher criticism or critical race theory, interpretive grids and quests for truth are always embedded with presuppositions. Identify these presuppositions. Consider their origins.
Ultimately, any thorough treatment of the topic of Bible interpretation must grapple with the implications of 1 Corinthians 2:14. If we take the Bible seriously and confess sola Scriptura, we cannot pretend Paul’s description of the unconverted is merely hypothetical, or assume it applies only to the illiterate or unscholarly. Paul’s statement—given by the inspiration of the Spirit Himself—is absolute. It is as relevant today as ever. It relates directly to how we view the presuppositions, theories, methodologies, and conclusions of “natural men” in the field of biblical scholarship. To put it in the words of Calvin,
To be sure, it is my conviction that the Spirit of God is not only the best, but even the only guide, since apart from Him there is not even a spark of light in our minds to enable us to grasp heavenly wisdom, while the moment He has shone forth His beams into our minds they are adequately, nay amply, furnished and prepared to attain wisdom itself.
Do we really believe this truth? Is this evident in our evangelical scholarship? To ignore it is to undermine the need for supernatural regeneration—a consequence which strikes at the very heart of the gospel itself.
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.”
Is Christ in Every Verse?
Sometimes we don't know what to do with the Old Testament. In conversation and conviction, we love to explain how the OT anticipates, longs for, prepares, and points to the coming Messiah. We stand in awe of what Isaiah says about the Suffering Servant. We may even like it when our pastor explains the OT echoes in the NT, demonstrating its beauty and subtlety.
But then we get to a passage like this in our Scripture-reading plans:
Now when you bring an offering of a grain offering baked in an oven, it shall be unleavened cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil. (Lev. 2:4)
How are we supposed to nourish our souls with this law about baking?
People have come up with a variety of answers to this question. One method is to seek to find Christ in every verse. Perhaps Christ is the unleavened cakes, or the wafers. Or maybe this is a symbol of Christ's future offering on Calvary.
Is Christ mentioned—or embedded somewhere—in every verse? Should we find creative ways to read Him into every portion of Scripture? How should preachers declare Him from all of Scripture? These questions matter, because how we handle the word of God matters.
Notice the wording of 2 Timothy 2:15: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth."
We honor Christ not only by declaring Him from the pulpit, but also by how we study His Word. God cares about both, and we need to care about reading, preaching, and teaching as much as God does. So we have to honestly ask: should we look for Christ in every verse?
There are some who suggest that if we do not look for Christ in every verse, then we fail to honor Him. None of us want to be guilty of dishonoring our Savior. We want to exalt Christ and handle His word with accuracy. The question, as we will see, is not whether we should declare Christ from His Word, but rather how to go about doing that.
The prophets themselves knew what they were doing. They knew how to speak of Christ in His suffering and glory (1 Pet. 1:10, 12), even if they did not know the timing or circumstances of His coming (1 Pet. 1:11). Accordingly, we do not need to read Christ into their revelation, but rather we must see how they establish Christ and declare that.
Here are some ways the OT authors establish Christ:
1. They prophecy of Him directly
From the opening chapters of Scripture (Gen. 3:15), the prophets reveal direct predictions about Christ (cf. Isa. 7:14; 9:6; 53:1–12; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 12:10). These prophecies are not merely apologetically important, but contain theology about Christ. We should understand not only what these prophecies anticipate, but also the theological significance of those expectations. That amplifies the person of Christ.
2. They show how He participates in the Old Testament
The prophets record events in such a way to show the activity of the Godhead. God looks down from heaven through the pillar of cloud, even as God Himself is the pillar of cloud (cf. Exod. 14:24; cf. 13:21). God sends fire from heaven, even as He is on earth in Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Gen. 19:24). These moments highlight how the second person of the Trinity has been involved in God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus is the Word that creates (cf. Ps. 33:6; John 1:1), the Word that drives God's plan, and the Word that finishes it (Rev. 19:13). Christ receives glory when we demonstrate how He has always pushed forward redemptive history.
3. They prepare the way for Christ in details
The prophets lay out so many important theological truths. Those theological truths should shape our lives so that we honor Christ. We cannot neglect that. Furthermore, those theological truths are conveyed in key phrases that both the OT and NT connect with Christ’s work. Understanding the nature of Bethlehem as a humble town of David’s birth establishes why Jesus will be born there in the future. He is born humbly, and yet is the new David who will restore the line. Understanding the sacrificial system helps to establish the nature of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. Understanding the creation week highlights how Jesus begins a new creation as He rises on the first day of a new week.
The more we understand the truths of the OT, it not only should change our lives to please Christ but also shed light on His glorious ministry. If we want to know Him better, we need to know the OT and know it rightly.
4. They prepare the way for Christ in God’s plan
The prophets weave together a unified plan of God from creation moving to the NT (cf. Neh. 9; Pss. 78; 104–6). Thus, every verse of Scripture may not connect with Christ directly, but is working out God’s plan that culminates in Him. God’s work is glorious and compounds into the ultimate dramatic glory of the revealing of the Son of God.
Ultimately, the prophets show us how they already established ways to link their writings with Christ. We do not need to make a new path. We can just follow the ones they already revealed. We say “what the prophet said” just as Lord did (cf. Luke 24:25). This ensures we have the full theological breadth of the OT that fully amplifies Christ. A grammatical-historical hermeneutic does not lessen the glory of Christ in Scripture. It unleashes it.
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.
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.
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.
Practical Bible Study: Where to Begin
When digging deeper into the meaning of a biblical text, the first order of business is to remember the refrain, Context! Context! Context!1 From the Latin terms con (meaning “together”) and textus (meaning “woven”), the word context refers to the surrounding elements into which a given text was woven by its author.
These surrounding elements are essential for giving the text its meaning and purpose. For example, think of the biblical text you want to study as a pocket that has been sown into an article of clothing. The meaning of that piece of material comes from its connection to the rest of the garment. Moreover, the way in which that piece of material has been connected will determine its usage—whether it is a front pocket on a pair of jeans to hold your keys, a shirt pocket to hold one of those nerdy pen protectors, or an inside pocket on a jacket to keep your passport safe from pickpocketers. If you came across that piece of material detached from its article of clothing, you would scarce know what to do with it. It is the rest of the garment that gives that piece of material meaning.
The same is true for any given statement of Scripture. For instance, take Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three have gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” These words have been invoked countless times in response to the social distancing measures prescribed by the government in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though we can’t meet as usual with our local church, we can be encouraged by the promise of Jesus’ presence even when we meet at home in a group as small as two. But is this the proper use of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20? No. His words have been detached from their context—a context that actually refers to Jesus’ instruction concerning church discipline! True is the saying, “A text without a context becomes a pretext.”
It is helpful to recognize that a text’s surrounding elements can be grouped into two categories—one of which is unwritten and the other of which is written. The first category refers to historical context, to that non-written dimension of elements like the geography, culture, and specific circumstances of the writer and his immediate audience. The second category refers to literary context, to that textual dimension that includes the immediate and larger context of the writer’s written work and even the antecedent Scripture to which the writer may refer. Both categories of context are important, and the student of Scripture must get a handle on these elements before he endeavors to dig deep into the text itself.
Practical Bible Study: Getting into Details
Observation can be defined as “the art of awareness.” Robert Traina likened it to “the absorbing process of the sponge when it is exposed to a liquid." When practicing observation, the student has two foundational objectives: (1) to become thoroughly conscious of the text’s details; and (2) to become thoroughly convinced of their need for explanation. How is this accomplished?
1. Read the text repeatedly.
The goal of this step is to do more than merely see words on a page. The reader must take inventory of everything, and since God does not waste jots and tittles, the reader must take pains to become aware of even the smallest details. To do this, the student must read, read, read, and read again. As he does, he must guard against the illusion of mastery—the error of thinking that familiarity with a text equals mastery of its content.
2. Compare the best translations.
A helpful way to recognize the details of a text is to compare it as it is stated in your translation with how it is rendered by other standard translations. Wherever this comparison reveals a notable difference, you can assume that a significant interpretive issue stands behind it. These differences need to be recognized and recorded for further study in the next stage of the process: interpretation.
3. Create a structural diagram.
The purpose of a structural diagram is to portray the text’s grammatical structure in a graphic manner. Diagramming requires the student to read the text at an even greater level of detail, identifying the main subject and verb in each sentence, distinguishing main clauses from subordinate ones, and recognizing how various phrases in each sentence qualify particular words. Diagramming also helps the student trace the writer’s flow of thought from the beginning to the end of the passage he is studying.
4. Ask the right questions.
It is not the goal at this point to form conclusions. That will come in the next stage. Rather, based on repeated reading, comparison of translations, and structural diagramming, the student must now make one more attempt to mine the data from the text. He must approach the text with the mind of a meticulous investigator, and this means refraining from interpretation and taking the time to ask the right questions instead.
If the student of Scripture desires to learn, he must put on the inquisitive mind of a child. Write the text out on a piece of paper, leaving ample space for underlining, circling, drawing arrows, and recording notes. Then ask questions, and on the basis of what is actually stated, see what the text yields in return. As Sherlock Holmes states, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” so nothing can be taken for granted or left as a general impression.
5. Summarize the results.
After an appropriate amount of time has been dedicated to the observation process, it is important to step back and sum up what has been observed.
In sum, keep in mind this rule for Bible study: The more time you spend in observation, the more effective and efficient you will be in interpretation. The pains you sow at this stage of the process will yield a harvest of rewards. Conversely, the degree to which you take shortcuts and fail to acquaint yourself with the data of the text is the degree to which the rest of your study will suffer.
Practical Bible Study: Drawing Out Meaning
In Scripture God speaks through his chosen writers out of benevolence, not scorn. He speaks in order to be understood, not to conceal. He has not only created human language with all its norms, but he speaks using that language according to those norms. Consequently, it is possible to understand what he means by what he says, and this is the goal of interpretation.
The act of interpretation can be defined as the process a reader undertakes to ascertain the author’s intent in a text. Success in this effort is achieved when the interpreter of Scripture sufficiently aligns his understanding with the intent of the author, and he does this by properly drawing out meaning from the language the author chose to express that intent. As Roy Zuck states, “In observing what the Bible says, you probe; in interpretation, you mull. Observation is discovery; interpreting is digesting. Observation means depicting what is there, and interpretation is deciding what it means. The one is to explore, the other is to explain.”
What does this process look like in practice?
First, interpret the words.
The interpreter must answer the questions, “Why did the writer choose these words, and what is their meaning in this context?"
Ultimately, the objective of this step is to provide a precise definition to the best of one’s ability. The interpreter must do the necessary work to be able to say with objective proof, “By using this term in this context, the writer intended to communicate the idea of __________.”
Second, interpret the grammar.
The interpreter must reach back to the observation stage to recall the unique and noteworthy grammatical features he observed in the text. These features included things like verb tense, word order, parallelism, if-then conditional clauses, the possible referents of a pronoun, the role of a conjunctions, and so on. Understanding these features is vitally important since meaning is not only communicated through an author’s choice of words, but through the way he orders his words and relates them to one another.
Again, the goal of this step is not merely to identify possibilities; it is to come to a conclusion. With sound explanations in hand, the interpreter must be able to say, “The writer intended this grammatical feature to communicate the idea of __________.”
Third, solve interpretive problems.
In some cases, the meaning of a word or a grammatical feature will not be clear-cut. Our distance from the original writer and his context can create a level of interpretive dissonance where even experienced commentators will disagree with each other. These situations present a number of temptations. For some interpreters, the impulse will be to throw up their hands in defeat. For others it will be to take the easy way out—to conclude that all the interpretive options are correct. Still others will be tempted to decide the issue according to intuition, or according to what earns the accolades of the desired crowd.
The following approach is recommended in a situation where multiple options are present:
a. Research the options. Read a good number of commentaries to determine which options exist. Take time to understand each one carefully.
b. Compile the arguments. As you read the available commentaries, make a list of the arguments that are given in favor of and against each of the options.
c. Weigh the evidence. Problems are not solved by counting the number of arguments you found for or against a particular option. They are solved by pondering the legitimacy and weight of each argument. As you do, pay close attention to the arguments that make best sense in the context of your text.
d. State the conclusion. Having considered all the arguments, state and explain your verdict. Resist “analysis paralysis”—the inability to make decisions because of fear, anxiety, and overthinking. A good formula to employ is, “Based on what I know now, the best option is ___________________ and it is for these reasons: ____________________.”
Fourth, pull it all together.
A tendency among many interpreters is to leave the process in pieces. Terms are given careful definitions; grammatical features are explained; specific interpretive difficulties are solved. But little effort is made to show how all of these findings relate to each other and advance the author’s overall intent to communicate knowledge.
Consequently, the interpreter must take the time to reassemble the pieces and display it as a cohesive whole. A good interpretation of a text will prove itself by its internal consistency.
Finally, validate the results.
Once the interpreter has reached a conclusion about the intent of the author, he must be sure to validate his conclusion before he incorporates it into his convictions and behavior—and certainly before he teaches it to others. This post-exegetical check is accomplished when the following questions are answered solidly in the negative:
a. Does my exegetical conclusion contradict what Scripture as a whole teaches on the subject? Since the Scriptures are non-contradictory in nature, the meaning of one text cannot genuinely contradict that which has been revealed in Scripture elsewhere. Therefore, contradictory interpretations cannot exist.9
b. Does my exegetical conclusion represent a novel interpretation never seen before in church history? One of the greatest dangers among interpreters is the desire to be the first to advance a novel interpretation. But as Fee and Stuart argue, “Unique interpretations are usually wrong.”10 If no one else has seen what you see, go back to the drawing board.
c. Does my exegetical conclusion ignore accountability to my local church? It is a travesty that a good number of biblical scholars have little or no regular involvement in a sound local church. They interpret Scripture in an ivory tower, not in the context of godly elders. The quality of their efforts is evident. As F. F. Bruce writes, “The revelation of God cannot be properly known apart from the cultivation of brotherly love within the Christian community.”
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.
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.
10 Essentials of Preaching
In the last chapter of Scripture he would ever write, the apostle Paul left one of his pastoral protégés, Timothy, with these words: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:1–2). With these words to Timothy as a foundation, what follows are ten essential commitments that every preacher ought to have as he prepares to faithfully preach the timeless and sufficient Word of God.
1. Preaching must be biblically-centered and biblically-grounded.
Charles Simeon had it right when he said: “My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.”
2. Preaching must be God-exalting.
Preaching should lead those who have listened to the sermon to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name” (Ps. 29:2), so that He receives “glory in the church” (Eph. 3:21).
3. Preaching must be Christward.
As the Prince of Preachers said:
"I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. . . . if I am asked to say what is my creed, I think I must reply—"It is Jesus Christ." . . . the body of divinity to which I would pin and bind myself for ever, God helping me, is . . . Christ Jesus, who is the sum and substance of the gospel; who is in Himself all theology, the incarnation of every previous truth, the all-glorious personal embodiment of the way, the truth, and the life."
4. Preaching must be doctrinally and theologically accurate.
Every sermon is, to some degree, a theological endeavor, as it promotes and explains the character and Word of God.
5. Preaching must be dependent, both before and after the preaching event.
The preacher prays as he studies (Ps. 119:18), he prays throughout the week leading up to his preaching, he prays the night before he preaches, he prays the morning he is scheduled to preach, and he prays as he walks up to preach. He is utterly dependent upon the Lord to provide the wisdom, the grace, and the strength to deliver God’s Word that day.
6. Preaching must be well-prepared.
The preacher must be a disciplined man who is committed to working hard and toiling in his study. He must be committed to studying the text in its original language, applying sound principles of grammar, hermeneutics, and exegesis to extract the main point of the text, studying the Scriptures and key theological treatises for important cross-references, and developing a sound homiletical outline that unearths and shines a spotlight on the main point of the text.
7. Preaching must be authoritative.
The preacher takes seriously his task of heralding God’s message to God’s people for God’s glory.
8. Preaching must demand something.
Preaching is not lecturing. While there is a didactic component to any sound preaching, preaching should go beyond teaching in calling on the listener to do so something with the content of the sermon.
9. Preaching must be both articulate and imaginative.
Illustrations and stories can be helpful in illuminating the meaning of Scripture, which in turn helps us to live upright and godly lives in this age (Titus 2:12).
10. Preaching must be passionate and engaging.
Preaching, as Phillips Brooks put it, is “truth through personality.” To be passionate in preaching requires a man to believe in what he is preaching.
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.
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.
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.”
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,
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.
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.