My wife has the green thumb in our home. Over the years, it has been fun to work alongside her in planting gardens and flower beds and seeing something beautiful develop. Gardening is tough work, but if you invest the time and “sweat equity,” there is fruit to reap.
Preaching the Old Testament is similar in many ways. Understanding Old Testament texts and then doing the work to “translate” them for a modern audience is labor intensive. But there is great fruit to reap in our preaching if we will do the work to dig into the soil of the text and spend enough time with it to cultivate all the potential that’s there.
For many years, I struggled to know exactly how to approach an Old Testament text and develop a sermon that adequately communicated its meaning. The following are some steps that I’ve discovered along the way that help me to craft a sermon from an Old Testament text.
1. Pray for insight. Prayer should be an important part of your entire preparation process. Before diving into the text, take a few moments to pray and ask God for the skill to properly exegete the text as well as for spiritual insight to be able to mine all the truths that are in that text. Ask for God’s perspective on the text so you can communicate what He wants His people to hear.
2. Determine the genre of the text. You have to know what kind of literature you’re dealing with. You preach narrative texts differently than poetic texts. A sermon from Song of Solomon will look quite a bit different than a sermon from Jonah.
3. Discover the structure of the text. At both a macro and a micro level, you need to understand the structure of the Old Testament book and the particular passage you are preaching. Before dealing with your particular passage, try to sketch out the overall structure of the book, an analysis of the overall discourse. Then zoom in to your passage to find its structure. For instance, if it’s a narrative text, discover the narrative flow (there are multiple narrative structures, such as “setting, conflict, climax, resolution”). If it’s poetic literature, look for things such as repetition and chiasmus. Whatever the genre, discovering the structure of the text is important because it will inform the homiletical structure you use for your sermon later.
4. Examine the substance of the text. Once you have the structural framework for understanding how a text unfolds, you want to dig into the “meat” of the text. The way to do this is by examining the text in its multiple contexts. The best way to think about this is to picture a series of concentric circles. In the innermost circle, you have the grammatical context. How are words and phrases used? What is the meaning of a particular word in its historical context? What is the syntax of the passage? In the next concentric circle, you have the literary context. What has been happening in the context of this particular Old Testament book? What comes before this passage and what comes after? In the next concentric circle, you have a text’s socio-cultural and historical context. What is happening in the broader scope of history when this text was written? Who is the author, when was it written, and for what purpose? Are there any socio-cultural customs or other contextual factors to consider that might inform your interpretation of the text? Finally, the outermost concentric circle is a text’s canonical context. How does this fit into the redemptive-historical storyline? How does this text ultimately point to the “Big Story” of what God is doing in the world? How does this canonical understanding help us understand the text Christo-centrically – in other words, how does this move us forward toward the redemptive work of Christ?
As you work through these contextual issues, make observations about all you are seeing in the text and learning from what’s around the text. Write down interpretive questions about the text. Look for the answers to these interpretive questions in the text itself. Commentaries and other study tools can be helpful at this point as well.
5. Try to “feel” the spirit of the text. Every text has a feel or an emotion. If you are reading a minor prophet, you may feel angry because the text is an indictment. If you are reading a Psalm, you may feel comfort or grief. If you are reading Ecclesiastes, you may feel a sense of desperation and then hope. There is a pathos to every text, and understanding the spirit of the text will inform the spirit and tone of your sermon.
6. Identify the big idea of the text (its unity) and its form (movement). After completing the steps above, you should be able to write down the central, unifying idea of the text in a pregnant sentence or two (this is the “Big Idea” of the text). You should also understand how that unifying idea unfolds or develops (this is the movement of a text – often seen in the text’s structure).
7. Determine how this text points to the redemptive work of our triune God. There is a sense in which we read the Bible left to right. We cannot understand the New Testament fully without understanding the Old Testament. But there is another sense in which we read the Bible right to left. We cannot read and interpret the Old Testament correctly without reading it with “New Testament Eyes.” In other words, to borrow from Graeme Goldsworthy, we read the whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Sadly, there are many sermons on the Old Testament that might as well have been preached by a Pharisee who didn’t know of God’s redemptive work through Christ. Spurgeon once encouraged his students to examine their sermons and if there was no gospel in them to throw them away. Make a commitment not to preach a sermon without pointing to the Father’s redemptive plan through the work of the Son, carried out in the power of the Spirit. Here are a few questions to ask of the text to see how it points to the gospel:
- Where does this passage fit in redemptive history?
- Is there a point of comparison or contrast between the character in this passage and Jesus?
- Is there an explicit or implicit reference to Christ in this text?
- Is there a type or foreshadowing of the gospel in the text?
- Is there a promise here that is fulfilled in the gospel?
8. Translate the “was-ness” of the text into the “is-ness” of today’s world by crafting memorable sermonic movements or points. Cross the bridge from hermeneutics to homiletics by crafting your sermon points or movements. Allow the text’s structure to inform your sermon’s structure. If the text has three movements, for instance, your sermon should have three movements. Translate the text from the language of “was,” “there,” “then,” and “them,” to “is,” “here,” “now,” and “us.” The movement of the sermon can be crafted inductively or deductively. The sermon outline itself can be declarative/indicative, descriptive, or imperative.
9. Make sure each movement of the sermon explain, illustrates, and applies the text. In a very real sense, you do not aim to preach your sermon; you aim to preach the text. Every point or move in the sermonic outline should serve to explain, illustrate, and apply the text.
10. Write an introduction that captures interest and a conclusion/invitation that sparks a response. Investing time to carefully craft an introduction and conclusion will yield great benefits in your preaching. Be intentional and thoughtful in how you do this. The introduction should catch the interest of the hearer and quickly draw their attention to the text. The sermon should conclude with an eye toward response.
Once you’ve completed these steps, then pray, pray, and pray some more. Ask God to use His Word in powerful ways that you can’t even anticipate. Then watch as the Old Testament comes alive for your hearers. Your church will enjoy the fruit of the labor you’ve invested in the text.
Dr. Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He and his wife Amy have four kids. You can follow him on Twitter at @andrewhebert86.