Let me begin with an overview of my own preparation process for an expository sermon. It starts with selecting the preaching passage; my preference is having it as part of an ongoing series on a Bible book. That relieves the agony of not knowing what the next week's sermon will be about. Nevertheless, it's difficult sometimes deciding how much of the upcoming passage to focus upon. A chapter? Just one verse?
Next in my sermon development comes a consideration of the audience. Who are they? What are their needs, their questions, their struggles, joys, and sorrows? From here I move back to the text and ponder what it meant and means. Then I test tentative sermon outlines and reflect upon how the text might be presented to the audience. Next I think about my aim and theme, checking to be sure I will be talking about what the text is actually talking about. I might develop a dozen or more possible ways of presenting the text, sketching them side by side.
Now it's time to decide the best way of preaching the sermon the best out line. I look for narrative, stories, and illustrations that permit me to preach the sermon in story form as much as possible. At this point I have a fairly extensive working outline. I use an outlining program on my computer to facilitate moving topics around. I do a lot of this. Would part 3 work better as part 2? Would this point be better made there than here? Gradually the sermon takes form.
After that I ask my most important question: So what? Sometimes every thing gets scrapped right here if the sermon isn't worth preaching. More often "So what?" leads to revision of the working outline. Sometimes a mi nor point is expanded to be much of the final sermon, and what was a major point compresses into one sentence. The goal is to say something important to the audience while being absolutely true to the text.
The final task in sermon preparation is producing the preaching outline from the working outline unless, of course, one would preach without notes.
Now, having looked at the process of preparation in overview, let's see the process in detail.
Choosing the preaching portion
To begin with, I write the sermon text at the top of a sheet of paper. For this sermon it's verses 14 and 15 of 2 Corinthians 5. I was struck with the idea that Paul was compelled (KJV---"constraineth"; RSV---"controls") by the love of Christ. His life certainly gave evidence that something beyond self-interest compelled him. The same would be true of every genuine Christian. Second, I was struck with Paul's statement of cause for why the love of Christ compelled him. Is there a sermon here? Is this text saying something significant for me and my parishioners? A few moments of thought convinced me that real possibilities existed. This is highly preachable stuff!
I eventually settled on a preaching portion consisting of 2 Corinthians 5:13- 21. This represents a division of the text into a section that holds together logically and that provides the immediate context necessary to understand the central portion of the text on which the sermon will focus: verses 14 and 15. I decided it would be difficult to exposit verses 14 and 15 without continual reference to the verses before and after. Since the passage selected hangs together theologically, it might as well be read to the congregation and handled as the preaching portion.
Good biblical preaching makes the text speak meaningfully to the needs of the audience. This involves putting the text into context: first, the context of the world in which the audience lives, then also the more commonly recognized aspects of biblical context.
To preach well, one must expound Scripture, but one must also continually ask that question "So what?" It's not enough to say to an audience, "This is what the text means"; the preacher must also say, "This is why this is important to us." Thus, when beginning sermon preparation it's helpful to ask, "What do I know about the audience who will hear this sermon? What are their needs? What questions are they asking of God? What problems are they struggling with?" Then, while examining the text, the preacher also draws from it answers to the questions that the audience might ask of it. That in turn settles the question "So what?"
Context. My sermon preparation moves from considering the audience to considering the text. The first thing to know is its context, from which most of the exegesis falls into place. After answering the context questions, I look at grammar and construction, and ex amine the important words in the text through word study. Only then do I attempt a tentative outline for preaching the text.
To be a good expository preacher, one must be bathed in the words and theology and background of the Scriptures. He/she must be conversant with the larger context into which the Bible book itself fits. There is no substitute for simply reading the Bible book again and over again. When I know by memory what every chapter in a Bible book contains, then I understand the inter connections among parts and the various arguments, particularly for the Epistles.
To me, nothing is more important to expository preaching than seeing the text set within its many contexts. A television commercial I just saw illustrates the point. The screen shows a single dot. What is it? It's impossible to tell. Gradually the camera pulls back, showing another dot, then another and another. The first two or three are the same color, but newly revealed dots are different colors. Still it is impossible to tell what they are. The camera continues to pull back. A radical color change, a margin, a border of some kind, a curve appears. The individual dots blend together into shapes; still the shapes are unrecognizable. Back and back goes the camera. Suddenly recognition dawns! The dots make up a dark round circle; the circle is the pupil of an eye; the eye belongs to a face; the face is the face of a child.
It's impossible to overemphasize the importance of understanding the con text in which the text occurs. To do this we start with the largest context and move progressively to narrower con texts until we come to the text itself. For our passage in 2 Corinthians, we must consider the larger world of the New Testament. Consider the following: Paul (as Saul) was a Pharisee. Soon after Jesus' death and resurrection, we find him doing his best to stamp out the infant Christian church. He was obviously convinced that Christianity was a heresy and Jesus a fraud. After encountering the living Christ on the Damascus road, he becomes convinced that Jesus is in fact the long-awaited Messiah and devotes all his energy in pro claiming Him to Jew and Gentile. What changed?
Obviously, after the Damascus road experience he knows Jesus is not dead but alive, but why should that realization thrust Paul in the direction it does? Certainly God gives him a commission as apostle to the Gentiles, but what would be his message as apostle---simply that Jesus is alive? What does that mean? Could it be that the Damascus road experience was less significant than the following three days of blindness---three days during which Paul wrestled with the most upsetting question of his life, the question of how Jesus could be both cursed of God and blessed of God? Paul would certainly have known the Scripture that declares anyone hanged on a "tree" cursed of God (Deut. 21:23, cf. Gal. 3:13). He would certainly have believed that Jesus could not have been the Messiah since He was obviously cursed of God. Meeting Jesus on the Damascus road then would have thrown Paul's certain ties about such things into a tailspin. Jesus is clearly exalted, yet He was just as clearly cursed of God. How could these two seemingly irreconcilable facts be reconciled?
Perhaps the answer came to Paul during the three days of blindness prior to his baptism, maybe afterward; but clearly at some point Paul saw that Jesus was cursed of God vicariously, not for his own sin, but for the sin of others. From that point onward the central thrust of Paul's message would be the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. The well-known and often-cited forensic and justificational emphasis in Paul's theology might well have stemmed from his struggle to find an answer to the dilemma that meeting Jesus on the Damascus road posed to him on that day.
Our verses in 2 Corinthians 5 come from Paul's pen, out of his head, shaped by his sense of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what that meant. To under stand these verses, we need to get into Paul's head, enter into his experience, wrestle with his questions, and rejoice in his discoveries. This is what I mean by understanding the larger, New Testament-wide context in which the verses appear. If we can do this, we have begun to understand the first of the many contexts in which this text must be placed.
The more immediate context is Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church and his Corinthian correspondence. The apostle explains that his attitude and actions toward the Corinthians are compelled by the love of Christ the persecutions and afflictions are accepted as a part of what it means to share in Christ.
Perhaps you can see why discovering the contexts in which the text lives is more than an important part of under standing the text; it may also be the best way to preach the sermon. Reading the text and describing its context may be all that the audience needs to under stand what God is saying in the text, not only to the original audience, but to them. The description of the original setting and the author's line of argument may be all that is necessary to establish the points of con tact that enable the audience to say: "My life context is similar to that context, and I hear God speaking to me in this text."
No sharp line exists between understanding context and doing other kinds of exegesis. I separate them in my mind largely because I can do the former with my Bible alone, but to do the latter I need tools. Here is where I open my Greek Bible and do my own translation. I look up words in Arndt and Gingrich's Lexicon.1 I parse verbs and decline nouns. I look up important words in Kittle's2 or Brown's.3 I load my computer Bible and search for words, using a cross-reference index to look for other texts that deal with the same or similar subjects.4 I look at grammar and syntax, and try to understand what they might contribute.
In this text, for example, there is an obvious grammatical question to be asked about verse 14: Is "Christ's love" (agape tou Christou) an objective or subjective genitive? If it is objective, then the text means: "The love I have for Christ compels me"; if subjective, the text means: "The love that Christ has for me compels me." There is, of course, the inevitable disagreement among commentators about how or even whether the question can be answered grammatically, and probably it does not matter much the love of Jesus for us creates the love we have for Him (we love because He first loved us [1 John 4:10]), and both or either are compel ling. In Paul's writings the genitive after agape is always subjective (e.g., Rom. 5:5; 8:39; 2 Thess. 3:5; see also Rom. 15:30; Eph. 2:4; Col. 1:13). It enriches sermon preparation, and possibly the sermon itself, to think it through and consider both possibilities.
Another exegetical question is the meaning of the two phrases "one died for all," and "therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14). The aorist of the first phrase suggests the once-and-for-all death of Jesus at Calvary. It happened in time and space as a historical event, over and done with. The aorist of the second phrase suggests something similar but considerably harder to comprehend at some point in time and space all of us died. Reference to Romans 6 reminds us of similar Pauline statements: "We died to sin" (verse 2); "Our old self was crucified with him" (verse 6). When and how did we die to sin? When and how was our old self crucified? Paul's argument makes clear that the "how" was "in Christ" (verses 3,4,5,6, 8) and the "when" was at the time of his death. God dealt with us in Christ. He put us in Him, and in Him we died, were buried, and were resurrected. In Him we now sit at the right hand of God (Eph. 2:6). Paul became "convinced" of all this, and that conviction brought him under the compelling love of Christ.
There is a parallel between our text in 2 Corinthians and chapter 6 of Romans. Being "convinced" in 2 Corinthians 5:14 is parallel to "know that our old self was crucified with him" combined with "count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" of Romans 6:6,11. Being "compelled by the love of Christ" is parallel to "offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life" in Romans 6:13. In both cases an understanding of the meaning of the cross drives the Christian into consecrated ministry to Christ. Romans 6 is the general application to all Christians of Paul's personal experience with the gospel and its implications for him.
At this point in sermon preparation, I turn to the commentaries. Since each has a slightly different perspective, I find it helpful to read as many as I can get my hands on. I prefer to read what the commentators have to say without taking notes; this prevents borrowing too much of their language or specific ideas. I want instead to gain my own under standing of the text. This method enlists the help of commentators without having them write my sermon.
When I have done as much as I want with exegesis (usually I have to call a halt because of limitations of time), I write a para phrase of the text. This brings together all I know about the text from my research and from my reading of what others have written. This is my paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15:
"The love that Jesus has for me and the love that I have for Jesus is the compelling force in my life. Every thing I do and everything I am flows from this. And this love flows from my conviction that Jesus died for all of us when He died on the cross, and that, when He died, we all died in Him. And the reason He died is so we might live our lives for Him rather than for ourselves."
At this point the fun is over and the hard work about to begin.
Tentative outline of the sermon
For me, the hardest work in sermon preparation is coming up with an out line. Studying the text is fun. My mind sees a multitude of interesting ideas that could be explored in a sermon. I can see lessons to each, warnings to amplify, and examples to emulate. But which of these is central? Which should be left for another sermon? How should the sermon be arranged?
The difficult task here is to move from understanding the text to presenting it. I find it helpful to cover a page with "thumbnail outlines," sketching in very brief form a dozen different out lines for presenting the sermon. Here are a few of the possibilities:
1. A new creation: what we all want to be
2. Compelled by the love of Christ: what it means to live as a new creation
3. Convinced that one died for all: how we become new creatures
1. Paul as an example of a man compelled by the love of Christ
2. How he got that way he was convinced that One died for all
3. So he lived no longer for him self, but for Him who died and was raised again
* * * * *
1. Compelled by Christ's love means two things:
2. His love for us (subjective genitive)
3. Our love for Christ (objective genitive)
* * * * *
1. Christ died for us
2. In Him we died
3. We live no longer for ourselves, but for Him
This sketching of tentative outlines might resemble doodling. Now that I use an outliner program on my computer, I take advantage of its ability to rearrange elements, bin-sort, prioritize, and quickly create and automatically number new outlines.5 The process is almost like playing with what I know about the text to see how many different ways it can be put together.
Gradually a sense of how to handle the text emerges, along with the order of presenting the main ideas and what is important from what is not. I find my self settling on a way to organize what I want to say about the text, a way that appears more and more often in my doodling. This way must be natural so that it will be easy for me to remember and not appear forced to the audience.
Theme, aim, and "So what?"
This is the time I ask questions about theme and aim. The theme? We, like Paul, will be controlled by the love of Christ when we too see that Christ's death and life are ours. The aim? To proclaim the gospel in a way that will create faith and new life.
At this time I also ask the "So what?" question: "I've spent all this time finding out about this text; I've got a bunch of possible sermons that could be preached from the text. But so what? Is it worth preaching? Is there any good reason to take the time of hundreds of people to listen to this sermon? Is it important? So what?"
My pastoral theology says that people need to hear the gospel story again and again and in every new way I can think of. Even though they may have heard the gospel before, they have never been the people that they are right now. Perhaps someone in the audience has a readiness to hear now what he or she has never heard before and will never hear again. The gospel is always new because the people who are listening are different than they have ever been. Their world is different. Their needs are different. They come with different ears and minds.
If I can make the story of Jesus live, especially the story of the cross, if I can make it real, if I can connect it with basic human emotion and need then somebody out there will say, "I've heard the story before, but somehow this time I know it was for me that He came, for me that He died." They have internalized and operationalized something that before was abstract theological proposition. Jesus came alive for them as Saviour and Lord.
When I ask the "So what?" question of this text, this sermon, I answer it with a clear conviction that this is important, that this is basic, that this is life and death. What could be more important than showing people where they can find life?
Adding narrative and illustrations
At this point I go back through the sermon and ask if there are illustrations to add that make the points easier to grasp and remember. I also look for stories that reinforce these points and add to them a pathos and humanness that make the ideas live.
First, I think about recent stories that might illustrate my points, then whether there are any Bible stories that do the same. Without good stories, I will resort to my collection of illustrations, but seldom are they of any use.
The past few years have seen a shift in my sermon style from didactic/cerebral to narrative/affective. In sermon preparation I ask myself, "Is there some way this sermon could be preached in narrative style? Could I take what I have learned from the text and share it in story form?"
In this particular case the story of Paul's own encounter with the risen Christ and his personal history with the Corinthian church suggest that this text might be preached by narrating the story of Paul's journey toward Damascus. He was secure in his knowledge that Christianity was false, because Jesus could not be the Christ since He had been cursed of God. Then he encounters the living Christ. How can this be? How can a Man cursed of God be now exalted? I can describe his torment of mind and soul during those three days of blindness in Damascus as he strives to put the puzzle together in some way that makes sense with all he knows about God and Scripture. I can let the audience share in his excitement as he sees in a flash of insight that Jesus was cursed of God, but not for Himself rather "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
Through this narrative I can trans form a theological argument into a drama with great human appeal and pathos. I can make Paul human. I can make his discovery of the gospel dramatic and alive. I can take the doctrine of justification by faith and make it live through the experience of this great man of God. I can draw lines that connect Paul's experience with the experiences of my listeners. I can hold Paul up as an example of a person who was so sure he was right that he was terribly wrong. I can even suggest to those in my audience who might be rigid in their thinking that they might emulate Paul in rethinking their own faith.
Given a choice between a narrative presentation of concepts derived from a text of Scripture and a didactic presentation of those same concepts, / would always choose the narrative. Not with out reason did God present the Scripture story largely in narrative form. The form of Scripture ought to dictate the form of our preaching, just as the con tent of Scripture dictates the content.
Final outline With the choice of a narrative style for the presentation of the sermon comes a decision to outline the sermon differently than would be the case if the sermon was presented in a more didactic way. (See box for final outline.)
The two large narratives make up the main line of the sermon. There are two departures from narrative: one to allow theological reflection on what it means to be compelled by the love of Christ, and the other to allow theological reflection on what it means to be convinced that One has died for all, therefore, all have died. The narrative sections should provide plenty of color, movement, and interest. The theological sections give us an opportunity to draw a line from Paul's experience to the text and from there to our own lives. The theological concepts are saved from abstraction and dryness by the storyline of the two narrative sections. This strikes me as a much better way to handle doctrinal or theological material than the usual method of textual exposition or topical instruction.
This is a highly individualized matter. Some preachers will want a manuscript to read; others will preach the sermon without notes of any kind. There will be many in between who will want more or less of an outline to jog their memories and lead them through the preaching. Whatever works for the preacher is the best thing to use. I can say from my own experience that what works best is the least of an outline I can get away with. The better I prepare, the more time and energy I spend in preparation, the less I can get away with in the way of preaching notes and the more freedom and serendipity I experience in my preaching.
* Unless otherwise noted, all texts in this article are from the New International Version.
1. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
2. Gerhard Kittle, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969).
3. Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1978).
4. I like the cross-references in my NIV. I recognize that cross-referenced texts are linked only because someone thought they should be and aren't necessarily related.
5. I use a program called MaxThink, available from Neil Larson, 2425 B Channing, No. 592, Berkeley, CA 94704.