How to prepare effective Biblical sermons

The preaching task is not simply one among the pastor's many duties; it is the very heart of his work.

Joseph J. Battistone is pastor of the Fletcher Seventh-day Adventist church, Fletcher, North Carolina.
Indispensable to a living, vibrant ministry is the proclamation of God's Word in the worship service. In worship the congregation assembles by God's command in order to hear His Word and be assured of Christ's presence. Whenever God's Word is truly proclaimed, the Holy Spirit enlightens, sanctifies, nourishes, and sustains the church. Thus the congregation is able to offer to God with confidence and joy its prayers, its hymns of praise and consecration, and its sacrificial gifts.

The preaching task is therefore not simply one among the pastor's many duties—it is essential, it is the very heart of the pastor's work. This does not mean that the minister spends most of his time in the study, researching his books; in stead, he must balance his book learning with pastoral visiting and counseling, and with administrative activities. The minister's field experience is as vital to sermon preparation as is his study.

How, then, does one go about the task of preparing effective Biblical sermons—sermons that meet the needs of the worshiping community?

Definition of Biblical preaching

Biblical preaching, briefly, is the proclamation of God's Word to the congregation. To be sure, proclaiming God's Word means much more than simply reading the Bible and attaching an object lesson to the passage. Biblical preaching involves the careful removal of the text from its original setting and transplanting it into the present situation of the church. To accomplish this, the minister must understand not only the Scriptures but also his congregation—the world of Bible times and the world of his church, the way both worlds are alike and the way both worlds differ.

Since the sermon serves as a bridge between the past and the present, and not merely as a commentary on the text, Biblical preaching must not be confused with grammatical, historical, or theological exegesis. It goes beyond these to proclaim the Biblical passage as normative for Christian faith and practice, in a way that informs, awakens, assures, and sustains the congregation in its life of faith. However, Biblical preaching must be centered upon the Biblical passage and not upon some personal problem or contemporary issue. The Bible alone is the norm for the beliefs and behavior of the church. Textbooks on psychology, sociology, or the like cannot replace the Bible as the basis for Christian faith.

As a teacher and advocate of the faith, the minister derives his authority from the Bible, but only so far as he under stands and interprets its message correctly. A superficial approach to the Scriptures—one that gives the minister only a vague idea of what the text is saying—impairs his ability to speak forcefully and forthrightly from the pulpit. It also depreciates the significance of preaching in the eyes of the congregation and robs God of an opportunity to ad dress His people in worship.

Biblical preaching is thus the only kind of preaching that equips the pastor with power to minister effectively to his congregation. It is the only kind of preaching that carries with it the authority of the Holy Scriptures. There can be no substitute for Biblical preaching.

Basic principles of preparation

The task of preparing Biblical sermons involves three scientific disciplines: hermeneutics (the principles of Scripture interpretation), exegetics (the methodology of exposition), and homiletics (the techniques of sermon preparation). The way one minister actually proceeds in the preparation of his message may differ from that of another; nevertheless, the minister cannot ignore any of the three disciplines and expect to preach effective Biblical sermons. Let's discuss the task under four subdivisions: the grammatical principle of interpretation, the historical principle of interpretation, the theological principle of interpretation, and the translation of God's Word into the contemporary idiom.

The grammatical principle of interpretation

Biblical preaching begins with an exegesis of the text, and exegesis follows grammatical principles. It seeks to understand the verbal meaning of the text by analyzing the function and meaning of the words employed, as well as the grammar and syntax.

Grammatical exegesis involves more than a general knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. It requires information about the various possible meanings of ambiguous terms and grammatically ambiguous constructions. Since the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (a few portions were in Aramaic), the minister who has no knowledge of these languages is handicapped. It is not enough simply to find the English equivalent of a Hebrew or Greek word in a lexicon. For example, the Greek equivalent to the English term world conveys a variety of meanings, all of which must be taken into consideration when one prepares a sermon on the church in contemporary life.

The minister who lacks adequate linguistic skills can make use of such lexical aids as commentaries, concordances, and theological dictionaries, provided that he understands their purpose and knows how to incorporate the information into the sermon. Commentaries differ in function and scope, as well as in theological posture. Some are chiefly concerned with text-critical matters (Bruce Metzger's Commentary on the Greek New Testament) or with literary and source criticism (The International Critical Commentary Series) or with theological exegesis (The Old Testament Library Series, The Anchor Bible) or with homiletical exposition (The Pulpit Commentary). Yet even when the minister possesses and uses lexical tools correctly, he must still examine words in their grammatical context within the phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, and finally the whole discourse.

The historical principle of interpretation

Biblical exegesis seeks to understand the grammatical meaning of the text in the light of the historical situation in which it was first written or spoken. This means that one should have a general knowledge of the literary history of the Bible, as well as an understanding of Israelite religion, society, politics, and economics. One must be acquainted with the various literary types of material in the Bible and the specific situations ad dressed by such types. In the Old Testament we find examples of law (Ex. 20:1- 23:19), historiography (Judges), wisdom or philosophy (Proverbs), devotional writings (Psalms), and prophetic literature (Jeremiah). In the narrower sense we note literary genre such as a legal saying (Ex. 21:15), a historical narrative (2 Sam. 2:8-4:12), a riddle (Judges 14:14, 18), a hymn (Psalm 100), or a prophetic oracle (Amos 4:1-3).

It is not enough simply to identify literary types. The minister should recognize, most of all, the relationship be tween inspired literature and the sacred history of the people to whom the mes sages were directed. A sermon based on a text must first interpret that text in the light of its own religious history setting. It is helpful to know whether the text that one is citing is a priestly blessing pronounced over the congregation at the close of worship (Num. 6:24-26) or a funeral dirge proclaimed by the prophet in lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem (Lam. 1:1).

Historical exegesis, then, proceeds from the conviction that God's self-dis closure occurred in the arena of human history and that the human witness to the divine revelation was a product of a particular culture. This in no way denies the inspiration of the Bible; rather it affirms the historical character of the Scripture revelation. In fact, this affirmation provides a safeguard against fanciful interpretations of the Bible that arise from the creative imagination of the reader rather than from an intensive and prayerful study of the text.

Because the Bible is a historical document and the church a historical movement, historical exegesis is important both in understanding the Biblical mes sage and in determining its meaning for today. Questions of date, authorship, background, and setting are essential to the task of preparing Biblical sermons. The more we know about the religio-political circumstances and socioeconomic conditions under which a document was written, the better able we will be to grasp the author's message and apply it accordingly.

The theological principle of interpretation

The minister must also understand and explain a text theologically. He should be cognizant not only of what the particular text is saying on the surface but also of the theology that informs the text. A person without theological training could read the book of Amos and grasp the general points expressed. He could read the prophetic denunciations against the wealthy aristocrats, the corrupt judges, and the elaborate system of worship, and would doubtless be able to perceive why doom was pronounced on the nation. And yet the conclusions he would reach would be shallow, because he would have failed to probe deeply into the theology that motivated Amos to prophesy. Unless the minister under stands that the preaching of Amos was rooted in the ancient traditions of his people, the sermon he prepares will be superficial or possibly incorrect.

Clearly, the prophet spoke for God in the context of the theological traditions of his people, as well as in the light of the circumstances of his day. An awareness of this fact enables the minister to grasp the text theologically and to preach the message with clarity and force. Effective Biblical preaching does not ignore theological questions but wrestles earnestly with the major themes and concepts of the Bible, offering to the congregation a clear exposition of their relevance in practical terms. It is well to keep in mind that the theology of the Bible is not expressed in abstract, highly speculative language. It is conveyed in concrete and picturesque speech in order to confront men and women in the course of their daily, mundane affairs with inspired counsel on how to live.

The translation of God's Word into the contemporary idiom

Biblical preaching is obviously more than a commentary that explains the grammatical, historical, and theological meaning of a text. The message of the text must be translated into the idiom of the congregation and presented in such a way that it is clearly seen to address the contemporary situation. To accomplish this, the minister must be knowledgeable not only in the Scriptures but also in the social sciences, particularly those having to do with human behavior. He must learn to ask the right questions of the text and of his congregation, and formulate a message based on careful and prayerful research.

It is important that the minister be aware of contemporary issues and their impact on the thinking, the feeling, and the behavior of his church. It is equally important that the church believe that the pastor comprehends what is happening in the world and how this affects them.

A minister may do careful exegesis of a scriptural text and yet detract from the significance of his study by offering superficial observations of contemporary life. The church stands in need of penetrating analyses and critiques of the world today. Should not a congregation be informed about the prophetic significance of the Middle East tensions and unrest? Cannot ministers offer the church direction in healthful living? Surely pastors who are alert to the diminishing natural resources, the mounting world population, and the apparent gloom of social commentators can prepare effective Biblical sermons on the second coming of Christ!

Sermons can be addressed to other areas of pressing needs. The minister must help the congregation discern be tween good and evil and offer counsel on protecting oneself against the cunning ways of the devil. What are the forces that contribute to the collapse of families? How can husbands and wives organize their lives around the Word of God to preserve the purity of their marriage and the security, stability, and solidarity of their homes?

Does the minister understand how a sense of powerlessness drives a youth to drugs, a mother to alcohol, and a father to crime? Is he sensitive to the anxiety that some of his members experience over guilt, or loneliness, or boredom? Does he proclaim from the Scriptures good news to the impoverished, relief to the oppressed, and freedom to the captive? Sermons of this kind are not put together by chance. They are the product of earnest soul searching, keen observation, intensive study, and much prayer. But the results are rewarding. Biblical preaching has creative and redemptive value for the church. When ever the Word of God is proclaimed, the church is nourished. And when the church is nourished, it grows spiritually and numerically!


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Joseph J. Battistone is pastor of the Fletcher Seventh-day Adventist church, Fletcher, North Carolina.

February 1979

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