|  May 9, 2024

The following article is part of a series of articles that will explore necessary disciplines for preachers. As the title of the series suggests, these disciplines act as foundations for effective preaching.

At some point, you may have heard a real estate agent make a statement that sounds something like this: “The three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location.” While I have zero expertise in real estate transactions, there is an application here for those who preach. Think about it. Even the expression our philosophy of expository preaching at Southwestern includes the designation, “text-driven.” If you aim to “let the text talk” in your preaching, you first must listen to the text. Specifically, how and why should you develop an ear for the text? Consider the following factors. While they are not exhaustive, they may point you in the right direction.

The Priority of the Text

         In one sense, the idea of giving priority to the text sounds like one of those “thank you, Captain Obvious” statements. However, the fact is that too many sermons today appear to give greater priority to illustrations and personal stories than to the text. In short, these sermons sound more illustration-driven than text-driven. Illustrations, personal observations and anecdotes certainly can be helpful components of a sermon. However, they should be subordinated to the text and used only in such a way that they illuminate and shed light on the text. Remember, in the text-driven sermon philosophy, the text governs the substance of the sermon. Give priority to explaining the text and its background as comprehensively as you can. Remind yourself that the Holy Spirit Himself has inspired your preaching text. Aim to “carve” closely to the text. That’s the key to the anointing and “unction” of the Spirit upon your preaching.

A Sensitivity to the Text

          This principle flows logically from the previous step. Textual sensitivity requires an identification of your text’s literary type or genre. For example, the epistolary genre (think Paul’s letters and the General Letters of the NT), presents itself as propositional and deductive. That means your main idea/thesis should be delivered in your introduction and prior to the development of your major points. It also means that you give particular attention to the grammatical/syntactical details of your text. Since verbs are the load-bearing walls of meaning, after distinguishing main clauses from subordinate clauses, proceed to identify the verbs in your text. Then, noting the distinction between verbs and participles, proceed to distinguish between imperative/command verbs and those verbs that are not. Why is this important? The answer is that the structure of the text should drive the structure of your sermon. Let those imperative verbs receive significant “air time” in your expression of major points.

          Beyond the epistolary genre, recognize the contrasting qualities of the narrative/story genre. This genre is dominant in the Old Testament and is found in Gospel parables and Acts in the New Testament as well. The narrative genre, by its nature, calls for an inductive development. A story doesn’t reach its climax or conclusion in its early stages. Rather, it develops through movements/scenes in the story which usually lead to climax and resolution. As you think about structuring your narrative sermon, avoid slapping a foreign, three-points-and-a poem structure on it. Instead, identify the key characters, plot and flow of the story. Think more in terms of scenes than major points. For your structure, use short sentences or key phrases which summarize the activity of the successive scenes of the story. Finally, after working through the narrative, proceed to deliver the main idea/thesis and offer specific applications in the latter part of your sermon.

Sensitivity to these genre/literary types and others can cultivate your “ear” for the text. As a result, your sermons will succeed in actually “letting the text talk.”

The Durability of the Text

       Why should you make the effort to drill down into your text, giving it priority and approaching it with sensitivity? My answer: because the Lord always has the last word! Repeatedly, Scripture testifies to its own timelessness and durability. Consider, for example, Psalms 19 and 119. In every generation, the word of God has sustained, encouraged, comforted, corrected and protected the people of God. When you rightly handle this word, you are reinforcing the truth that Scripture addresses the essential and the eternal. It has a timeless relevance and an unmatched durability. That’s why more than a few preachers, including the late W. A. Criswell, chose Isaiah 40:8 as their life verse: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Listen to the text and let it talk!

Matthew McKellar is Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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