There is no such thing as a preacher who has learned fully how to preach. I have taught preaching on and off for 20 years, and I learn something new about preaching all the time. The first step in learning how to preach is recognizing that you have not arrived. We must all learn this simple fact. During my car rides into the office, I often listen to my recent sermons and critique myself. It is a difficult exercise and often painful, but it is necessary. But in doing this I have learned much and am constantly reminded that I have not arrived.
I am a big proponent of serial preaching, or what was once referred to as lectio continua-preaching through books of the Bible. It is not the only way to preach, and I have done most of the others, but I think the bread and butter of your preaching should be through books of the Bible. Though you may take breaks for holidays and special events, the focus of your preaching should be through books of the Bible.
But how do you prepare a sermon when you have seven days from the time you end Sunday morning until next Sunday morning? When you step into the office on Monday morning where do you start?
You must be on your face before God and say, “O Lord, I do not have anything to say to these people but you do. I am going to preach your Word Sunday. Here is my text. Holy Spirit, you inspired it. Holy Spirit, you indwell me; teach me what this passage means.” Spurgeon said, “I would rather teach one man to pray than 10 men to preach.” That is an odd statement from a man who started a school to teach men to preach. Yet, Spurgeon knew that he could move the world if he could find one man who knew how to pray. Interestingly, one of secrets of Spurgeon’s power in the pulpit was what happened in the basement of the Metropolitan Tabernacle as he preached. Anywhere from 100 to 300 people, members and deacons, gathered on their knees, and the entire time he was in the pulpit, they would pray. And that is why through the years in that church there were thousands of people converted.
READ THE TEXT
Read the text several times in English. G. Campbell Morgan would read his text 40 to 50 times before he would preach on it. You must get the text in your mind. Read it in the morning, at night, before you go to bed. Think about it when you lie down and when you get up. When I was young, my grandfather took me rabbit hunting, and we would look for paths in the grass that were caused by the rabbit’s passing through time and time again until the grass laid down and a trail was worn. This is what you want to do with your text. If you go back and forth, again and again, you will beat the text to the point that the grass no longer obscures your vision because you have beat a trail, and you will figure out what is going on in the text. This reading of the text over and over in English will help you become familiar with your text.
Have you noticed the number of commentaries that have been consulted at this point? None. What is the average preacher’s first step on Monday morning? They go to their library and pick out every commentary that they have on a passage and read them. This is absolutely the worst thing that you can do. You do not go to the commentaries first; you go to them last. Preacher, do not go to your commentaries first.
If you know Greek and Hebrew, you are ready to do the translation. This is a rough translation; it does not have to be a detailed translation. Get your language helps off the shelf and whatever you need. If you are dealing with a longer passage in the Hebrew Old Testament, you might not feel as adept to read through longer passages such as Genesis 22. If you can you should, even if you do not look at every single word, you ought to deal in your Hebrew like you deal in your Greek.
If you have never had Hebrew or Greek, there are tools for English speakers that will assist you in doing some basic word studies or getting basic ideas for how certain aspects of grammar might affect the interpretation of a passage. Some of these are works like W.E. Vines Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words and Expositor y Dictionary of New Testament Words. There is also Bible software that is helpful for those who have language experience and for those who do not, such as Accordance, BibleWorks and Logos.
When you do a rough translation of the text, it is amazing what you will find. Recently I preached Isaiah 6, and in looking in the Hebrew text, I found that the Masoretes placed markings under the phrase kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (holy, holy, holy), which showed a growth in volume. I do not remember ever seeing this before and cannot remember a commentary making reference to it, though there might have been, but this is the type of thing that you will find when you do your language study. Or take Genesis 22, for example; it is interesting that as Abraham and Isaac reach the top of the mountain the sentences become short and staccato. It is the equivalent of the filmmaker’s slow motion scene. We miss it in English, but as we use the languages and find tools that help us use them, the drama and nuances of the text can come to life in our preaching.
Take a pen and paper and make notes about everything you observe in the text. Who are the people? What are the places? Is this a Narrative? Is there a plot? Is there any repetition of words? Are there any key words? Are there any doctrines taught? Is there any discourse? Who is saying what to whom? There are many things that happen in the Bible that we pass over. We need to be more careful in our reading and more intentional about asking questions. You may be here by Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
This is where you want to look at the background of your text. When I preach through a book of the Bible, two or three weeks before I preach the first sermon in a series, I will do a lot of background study on the book. I need to know who wrote the book, under what circumstances, who the audience was and other background issues. The great advantage to preaching through books is that once you have done the background for the book you do not have to do this for the rest of the book because it is already done. It is already in the back of your mind. Even if you are preaching through a book, you still need to think about what the background is for the book. What you have already studied and learned in the background, you will apply to your text.
Take, for example, 1 John 1:1: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life.” Why is John talking about touching Jesus? In the late first century, John is combating an incipient error that was beginning to emerge in some places of Asia Minor called Gnosticism. This was a heresy that taught that Jesus did not have a real human body but rather that he was a ghost and just appeared to be real. They were called the Docetic Gnostics-from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to appear”-and they believed that Jesus only appeared to be human. This is what John disproves. If you do not do your background study, you will not know this and your people will not know it. It tells you why John writes the way he writes.
This is where you will get serious and begin to tear your passage apart. You will look at the sentences, clauses, phrases and words and find out how it all hangs together. 1 John 2:15-17 says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” To make a long story short, when you begin looking at this text, you want to chart the verbs. Verbs are the load-bearing walls of the text.
Architects know that there are certain walls that cannot be torn down because they hold up weight, and to do so would bring the house down on itself. Similarly, verbs are these walls for every language, and therefore, we need to spend time understanding their structure by charting them out. In this passage “do not love the world” is an imperative verb and is also the only imperative in the text. This is the main point of these three verses because imperatives always outweigh other forms of verbs in terms of meaning. It is the most powerful and most dominant.
In continuing in the passage we find the reason for the imperative. “If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Love for the world and love for the Father are incompatible. This is reason number one. Verse 16 further defines the first reason: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Finally, verse 17 begins with the coordinating conjunction “and.” This is the second coordinated reason for the command in verse 15. ”And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” This means that we are not to love the world because of the impermanence of the world, because it is passing away.
It is clear from this work that 1John 2:15-17 has one main point and two sub-points. This is the structure of your text. If this is the structure of the text, what will your outline be for this text? One main point and two sub-points. Why? Because expository preaching is preaching the text as you have it. You do not impose structure on the text you let the text tell you it’s structure, and you just say, “Yes sir!” and you get in line behind the text. This is your exegetical outline.
Once you have this exegetical outline, you are ready to take this and convert it to a communication outline. You do not want to take this exegetical outline that may be deep or have your language studies up front into the pulpit. You must put this into language that communicates because that is what a preacher does.
Main Point: Do not love the world, neither the things in the world.
Subpoint 1: The incompatibility of loving the world and God at the same time
Subpoint 2: The impermanence of the world versus the things of God
With this example as your exegetical outline, you will need to convert this to a communication outline that has verbs and conveys application and is memorable for the people. Here you will also do your word studies. In this passage cosmos, translated “world,” and epithoumia, translated “lust,” are words that you want to study and bring out in your message.
Lets’ pause here. How many commentaries have we read? None. We still have not looked at a single commentary. This all comes from our own knowledge of language. Whether you do this from a Greek text or from an English Bible, this works.
What is the Main Point of the text? What is the author talking about, and what is he saying about what he is talking about? Always answer these two questions. You do not understand your text until you can answer these two questions. If you do not understand it, your people will not understand it because a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew. Develop the sermon outline from the outline of the text.
WRITE OUT YOUR SERMON
Next, you want to write out the body of your sermon. This is your explanation, illustration and application. Now you can go to the commentaries and use all of the helps that you want. I would encourage you to write out your sermon every once in a while. Manuscripting will help you develop the discipline of thinking through every word and how it will sound when you speak. Occasionally, I will take a sermon I have preached and have it transcribed word for word. Then I will go through and mark out every superfluous word and make changes, so the next time that I preach it, there will be improvement.
All preaching involves three elements: explanation, illustration and application. You must think about explaining the meaning of the text and then illustrating and applying it to the people. If I were looking for an illustration for 1 John 2, dealing with world systems, where should I look? For men, you might refer to ABC’s Wide World of Sports where you can follow sports and teams and find all of the paraphernalia that goes along with it. It is a system. For ladies the world of fashion is a good option. There are designers, designer clothes, handbags and a myriad of other accessories. This type of illustration helps people begin to see the term world. Good preachers are constantly on the lookout for ways they can illustrate truths in the Bible. They are everywhere, from billboards to radio advertisements, but you must look.
After you’ve written the body of the sermon, write your introduction and conclusion. Why would you write out the body of the sermon before you write out the introduction? You cannot write an effective introduction when you do not know what you are going to say. When you write out the body of your sermon first, you can come back and ask, “What would a good introduction to that sermon be?” The same is true with your conclusion.
MEMORIZE AND PRACTICE
The goal is to have your sermon in your mind so that you can stand and preach the sermon with few or no notes. Remember, it’s not a song until it’s sung, it’s not a bell until its rung, and it’s not a sermon until it’s preached. Just getting the sermon written is half the battle. You then have to stand up Sunday morning and deliver it.
It is possible to have a great sermon and not deliver it well; either you are boring or you read it from the page, and it falls flat. You must work on the issues of delivery. We deal in words, and as Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug.” You must choose your words carefully. This does not just happen. We must take time, even hours, thinking about how we can say things in a way that the Holy Spirit can use to impact the lives of people.
If you wait until Saturday night to do your sermon, I guarantee your people will suffer on Sunday morning. But if you start on Monday morning and follow these steps-it does not need to be exactly these steps. You may need to adjust these steps to fit your personality-but if you will have some system that you attempt to follow through week after week, this process will go faster. With consistency in practice, it may not be unusual for your sermon to be written by Wednesday afternoon. Then you can think through the delivery Thursday through Saturday and stand to preach Sunday morning in the power of the Holy Spirit and deliver the message.