Studying to Preach
THE church today, we have decided, languishes from a lack of great preachers. She longs for draughts of living water that will quench her spiritual thirst. That thirst will never be satisfied until her preachers prepare great sermons based on great study of great themes. Those who would help the church must turn their attention to the spacious themes around which the Bible is built: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the Atonement, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the Second Coming in relation to the contemporary scene. There are so many vast topics awaiting our study that we have no need to spend our time on Lilliputian thoughts; indeed, we shall retard our professional progress and stunt our spiritual development if we dillydally with minor matters and neglect greater Biblical revelations.
The church also needs ministers who will engage in original study—not of original subjects, since there now are none, but study that is original with us in that it is our own and not a rehash of other men's thoughts. This can only come from our own reading and our own reaction to what the Spirit suggests while we read and when we begin to study. We must, then, allow our own personality to develop, under the Spirit's control, so that the product of our study bears the stamp of our own mind.
It will be easier to achieve such an ideal if we early train ourselves to do our own thinking. It is good to begin with the Bible and to stay with the Bible until we have extracted from a passage all that we are then capable of gaining. When that is done, we may begin to read what others have written. Their thoughts will supplement rather than swamp what we have already discovered: their hoary authority can uphold the conclusions we have prayerfully reached, and give added weight to the message that we have independently prepared.
If our study is going to produce a stream of interesting expositions, we need to be aware of many different ways of exploring the Bible's treasures. The method favored by most Adventists, and therefore to be used sparingly, is the topical study, which collects biblical dicta on a given subject; but there are many other approaches that can be profitably made—the presentation of the concentrated message from a complete book, the recounting of a meaningful incident in sacred history, the telling of a biography with its present-day application, the tracing of prophetic fulfillment, the exposition of a specific passage, or, perhaps the finest art of all, the detailed examination of a single text.
Concentrate on Specific Topics
Let us enlarge on these few suggestions and consider some specific topics. We shall find it stimulating to make a fresh, personal study of our main doctrines, considering their validity for ourselves instead of taking them lock, stock, and barrel from a denominational textbook. We ought to make each interpretation our own so that we can present each with a strong background of deep personal conviction. It should not be difficult for us to master the contents of one of the smaller books, such as Ruth, Hosea, or Habakkuk; Mark, James, or Jude, and to prepare an intensely interesting, informative, and inspirational talk or series of addresses based on such mastery. The use of an active, sanctified imagination will bring Biblical scenes to life; we shall see long-gone events taking place before our eyes; vivid details will add authentic color to the story; dead characters will be resurrected to inspire our listeners with their godly examples.
In the field of biography the Bible has no equal: every life can yield its lessons, if only we take the trouble to reconstruct the man and his times. A wealth of sermonic material awaits our employment in the realm of theological themes—the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Grace, the Kingdom of Glory. We could spend our whole ministerial lives in keeping track of such subjects coincidentally with other studies.
Without doubt we should, for our own benefit if for no other reason, prepare a series on the life of our Saviour, considering His pre-existence, His incarnation, His childhood, His youth, His early and His later ministries, Passion Week, the Resurrection, the Ascension, His heavenly ministry. And to bring our list to a close, let us accept the pleasurable task of preparing sermons on well-known texts—John 3:16; Genesis 1:1; Exodus 3:14; Ruth 1:16, 17; Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 53:4, 5; Daniel 2:44; Matthew 1:21; Acts 1:8; Galatians 2:20. The selection is almost inexhaustible! It will be to our intellectual and spiritual advantage to experiment with all of these forms, and to ring the changes in their use so that neither we nor our hearers grow stale through a surfeit of any one of them.
Strict Mental Discipline Necessary
In all this study we must exert a staunch integrity and exercise a strict mental discipline that will reject the facile pretext and will lead us to search for valid textual support of the lessons we desire to teach. We shall try to discover the primary meaning of each passage in its context and be very careful about its secondary applications. We shall conscientiously seek to understand the author's intention in writing his book, and shall avoid careless present-day application of words that were written thousands of years ago. We shall endeavor to find how God would have us interpret the particular message we are studying.
Such methods of Bible study are not carried through in a hurry. They call for the expenditure of leisurely time, and demand that we prepare our thoughts well in advance of the occasion for which they are needed. Big thoughts, like big trees, take time to grow. Ideas must first be sown in seed form, then have time to sprout, to send down roots into our minds, and to thrust up mental foliage and develop fruit that will come to maturity. We need, then, to carry in our minds seeds of thought that will germinate and be ready for transplanting to the garden where sermons grow. Nothing will make this process more possible than the act of memorizing a text so that it is lodged in our thinking and is ready as a subject for meditation whenever the opportunity occurs. A text that is tucked into the recesses of our mind becomes our own, ever available for contemplation, entirely at our disposal, to be examined, turned inside out and upside down, to be mentally chewed and relished until it releases all its spiritual savor. A memorized text can also be laid before the Lord in prayer and be brought under the Spirit's tutelage: God can give us His interpretation of His own words and render them infinitely richer than our puny mind could ever make them.
Finally, brethren, let us place our best mental and spiritual powers at our Lord's disposal when we come to study what He has indited. Let us expend our deepest and highest thought on our contemplation of the Word of God, for it deserves the best that is in us. Let us give our utmost for the understanding of the highest, cherishing a "divine discontent" that will ever urge us farther on the pathway of truth. And in all our study let us preserve our sense of the presence of God, taking the shoes from the feet of our mind knowing that the places whereon our thoughts shall stand are holy ground.