A Preperation Process for Expository Sermons
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There is both an art and a science to preaching.
The art of preaching consists of:
1) being taught, lead and empowered by the Holy Spirit
2) having wise understanding of people and the world
3) personal oratory ability
Preaching is at least as much art (probably more) as science. This process is not about art. This process is an introduction to the science, the technical aspects, of studying for and putting together a sermon.
For the art of preaching – being taught, lead and empowered by the Holy Spirit along with wise understanding of people and the world and oratory ability – there is no process. For the art, seek God in prayer, get wise council and practice, practice, practice.
Well crafted art, that is, a well crafted, well delivered and empowered sermon, is enjoyed by everyone. The people who hear it enjoy clever and emotional words and ideas that resonate deeply. They enjoy humor and beautiful word pictures. The preacher enjoys having his jokes laughed at and having his profound statements thought about and agreed with. And, both preacher and people enjoy the personal connection which comes through the mind, emotions, actions and spiritual bond of a sermon that attains to high art. Good art is enjoyable and helps the people understand and accept the content of a sermon. The art of a sermon depends on the work of God and your giftedness.
But, not everyone appreciates the science of a sermon, that is, the technical, precise and correct content and proper interpretation of the Bible. Pointing out truth and error and making fine distinctions in doctrine often alienates people and certainly accentuates differences in beliefs. Exactness in application makes people uncomfortable. In general, the people like the content of a sermon to be narrow enough to be biblical, but broad enough so no one gets offended. And, many pastors either don’t like to study and grapple with difficult passages and theological problems, or they are lazy and don’t do the work. Doing the science of preaching is hard work, and it is hard to do well.
But, art is best when it flows from science. Form follows function. Knowledge and understanding is the soil that beautiful art grows from. Saying something well is an art, but you first must have something to say. Shallow words said beautifully are still shallow. When a preacher has thoroughly studied and prepared his sermon he will be much more free and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in his delivery of God’s word. The more you study, the better your sermon delivery can be. This is not well understood by most preachers.
But – take note – don’t think that just because you study hard and follow a preparation process you will be a good preacher. Following a process will not magically make you a more dynamic preacher. No process is magic. There is no magic in sermon preparation.
Also, following a process will not guarantee that the sermon you come up with will be an accurate representation of what a Bible passage is about. No process can do that. But, this process will help you to more quickly, and with more accuracy, understand the Word of God and help you to make the most of the abilities and time you have.
This process will help you to be armed with a message from God that He will hopefully, if He is gracious, take and use to glorify Himself, build-up His people and call the lost to Himself.
This preparation process for expository preaching has three sections:
Preparation is the first step in a long journey that begins with having no idea of what you will preach on and finishes when you say ‘amen’ at the end of your closing prayer. As you would prepare before you go on a long journey, so also you need to prepare before you write and deliver a sermon.
Pray – Pray, pray, pray. Pray throughout the whole process. Say to God, “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things out of thy law” Psalm 119:18. Don’t expect to be lead and taught by God if you do not talk with Him and deepen your relationship with Him.
Determine What You Will Preach On – What do you want to preach on? Something in the Bible must interest you. What have you always wanted to know more about? If something interests you then your enthusiasm for it will make it interesting to the congregation. What do the people need to hear? If you are a good shepherd you will know what will help your people.
If you are preaching exegetically through a book then move on to the next section. One of the benefits of preaching verse by verse through the Bible is that you never need to wonder what you will preach on next. If you are preaching a one time message (a hit & run) then make sure the subject is appropriate to the occasion. If you are preaching a topical message then determine the topic and check the topical and thematic indexes in study bibles and other resources. Preach from the one main passage that best illuminates the topic, but incorporate other texts that deal with the same topic. Yes, a topical sermon can be exegetical.
Be careful with topical sermons. Do not come up with an idea for a sermon and then fish around for a verse that you can use to support your idea. That is not preaching the Bible, that is preaching your idea. Find out what the Bible has to say on a certain topic and then preach what the Bible says.
Read the Passage – Read slowly. Slow down. Even if you have a passage memorized don’t just breeze through it. Don’t assume you already know what it says. Approach it as if it were the first time you read it.
If you are a preacher then words are your tools, both written and spoken. You need to read a lot, especially from the Bible. For each sermon, read the book your passage is in once. Read the section and chapter of the book it is in at least three more times and read the passage itself at least ten more times. Don’t think you can understand a passage if you have only read it once, twice or even a few times. Many things in the Bible are hard to understand and only reading a passage a few times or superficially skimming over a section will not help you understand it.
This is still just preparation so don’t do any interpreting and don’t come to any conclusions yet. Start writing down any questions the text brings up and continue to write them down through the whole process.
Meditate on the Passage – Reading is exposure to Scripture, meditation is absorption of Scripture. Slow down! Don’t think you immediately know what your passage is about. Read the passage slowly and ponder and consider each word, phrase, sentence, verse and paragraph. Talk about the passage with other people, especially with other preachers and mature Christians. Think about the passage and even memorize it if possible. Don’t think about what the passage means yet, think about what it is saying.
Begin to Think About the Main Idea of the Passage – As a child of God who is lead by the Holy Spirit you can understand the general teaching of any passage. Coming to a general conclusion about the main idea of a passage is useful as a starting point for digging deeply into God’s word. But, hold on loosely to your first idea of what a passage is about. Use the following steps to make sure you are on the right track and to expand and deepen your understanding of the text. Come up with a general idea of what the passage is about, but be ready to adjust or completely toss out your initial idea if the exegetical work does not support your idea.
To some the preparation phase is already more study than they do for their sermons. That’s not good. Now begins the deep digging into the depths of the passage.
Determine the Genre - God crammed His infinite thoughts into human language. And, through the human writers of Scripture, He used different ways of communicating, just like we do. The genre is the form of the information, the way the passage is written, the literary type. For example, the Psalms are poetry. The information in the Psalms is written in the form of poetry. The book of Romans is not poetry, but is in the form of logical discourse or what is called “didactic” literature.
God used different ways of communicating for a reason. We need to understand the different ways God communicated (the different genres) in the Bible because the genre of a passage has a direct influence on how you interpret that passage. You must not interpret – or preach – figurative language in the Psalms the same way you do the direct non-figurative statements in the book of Romans. Many errors have been spread around by taking figurative language to be literal and literal to be figurative. Understanding genre will enable you to avoid missing the point of the passage.
The different kinds of genre found in the Bible are law, wisdom literature, logical discourse/didactic, narrative, gospels, parables, poetry, prophecy and apocalyptic. Consult any good hermeneutics book to find out the different genres found in Scripture and how to interpret them. Remember to use and apply the hermeneutical principles that are relevant to your passage.
Begin Making R.E.A.L. Observations on the Passage – Observation shows you what is in the text. But, observation is not interpretation. Observation shows you what needs to be interpreted. Don’t assume you know what the passage is about. Read it a lot and just look at, just observe, what it is saying.
Your observations should be R.E.A.L.:
Relevant – they must deal with what the passage is about.
Exegetical – they must come right out of, and be based on, only the text.
Applicable – they must be meaningful to life.
Legitimate – they must be an observation of important information.
Do NOT do any interpreting or concluding yet, you are still gathering information. You don’t know enough yet to say what the meaning of the passage is. Along with writing down your questions, continue to make R.E.A.L. observations throughout the whole preparation process.
Understand the Biblical Context – The one word or phrase or verse or passage you want to preach on did not drop from the mouth of God all by itself. God said some other things before and/or after it and it is all connected. The meaning of your passage comes from its context. Look at your passage by moving from the big picture of the whole Bible to the focused and specific context of the verses immediately around it. “Context is King” when it comes to understanding the meaning of a passage.
Understand the Cultural and Historical Setting – What other biblical events are taking place at the same time as the events in your passage? Compare I-II Kings with I-II Chronicles, Kings & Chronicles with OT Prophets, Acts with Epistles, a gospel with the others, etc. What social, cultural and religious issues/situations were taking place when the passage was written? What was the writers situation when he wrote the book you are preaching from? What was the situation of the people the book was written to? Look up the geography in a Bible atlas and the names of people and places in a Bible dictionary.
Real life was going on when the Bible was written. What was happening and how did it affect the writer and the recipients of the book? How does the cultural and historical setting affect the interpretation of the passage? The Bible addressed real life back when it was written and it still addresses real life today. Understanding what was happening in the lives of those who wrote it and first received it will help in understanding what it is about.
Grammatically Analyze the Passage to Get the Exegetical Outline – Before you come up with your preaching outline of the passage it is best to first find God’s outline of the passage. Translate the passage from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek if you know the languages. Make a line or block diagram of the passage, preferably in the original language, but a diagram from your translation is fine too. A line or block diagram is not necessary for most narratives and some gospel passages, parables and apocalyptic passages. The beginning and end of the passage will be made obvious by the diagram which is revealed by the grammatical construction.
For narrative, gospel, parable or apocalyptic passages diagram the flow of the story by following the action and movements of the people and beings in the passage. Check good books on hermeneutics to understand the “chiastic” structure of many Old Testament narratives.
Find the exegetical outline of the passage based on your diagram. If the passage is narrative, from a gospel, a parable or apocalyptic then outline the story by following the flow of the story. Outline other types of passages according to their grammatical construction as revealed by the diagram of the passage. These outlines will look similar to the diagrams. Compare your outline with those in commentaries and other resources. If your outline is significantly different then rework what you think the main idea is. Don’t be an innovator. The exegetical outline should come right out of the text. As much as possible, use the actual words and phrases of the passage for the points of your exegetical outline.
Do a Lexical Study of Key Words – Not every word needs a word study. Don’t choke your sermon with extra facts about words that have nothing to do with the point of the sermon. Do word studies on important words you don’t completely understand and on words that have a lot of theological significance. Word studies will help you make fine distinctions in the meaning and emphasis of a passage.
Identify All Doctrines in the Passage - Look up the doctrines in your theology books and be sure you understand them. Know what they mean and know how they relate to one another. And most importantly, know how they impact life. What does the theology mean for the people? How does it impact their human existence? Theology – not pithy platitudes nor emotional manipulation – will help people grow and overcome their problems. Proof are the books of 1 & 2 Corinthians. Corinth was a church full of immature, fleshly, sinning Christians and Paul used heavy duty doctrine to help them and straighten them out.
Write Down the Exegetical Main Idea Based on the Exegetical Outline – At this point you need to solidify your understanding of what this passage is about. Your general thought of what the main idea is now needs to be either confirmed, changed completely or fine tuned. The exegetical main idea is the main point of the passage. The point of the passage is the point of your sermon – not some other principle or idea. The exegetical main idea should come right out of the text. As much as possible, use the actual words and phrases of the passage to write your main idea. If the point of your sermon is not the exegetical main idea of the passage then you are not preaching the passage, but instead some other idea. To help you find the exegetical main idea use the historical study, the contextual understanding, the grammatical analysis, the word study, the exegetical outline, your observations and the doctrines in the passage.
Check Your Work by Consulting Commentaries and Other Resources - If you don’t think you should use commentaries and other resources to help you prepare a sermon then I give you a Charles Spurgeon quote from the introduction to his book Commenting and Commentaries, “Of course you are not such wiseacres as to think or to say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the field of exposition. … It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves should think so little of what He has revealed to others.”
Godly people have been studying your passage for a long time, a lot longer than you have. If you come up with something from your passage that no one else has seen in the last 2000 years then throw it out. If there is significant disagreement between you and other godly biblical interpreters then go back and re-work those sections where the disagreement exists.
Interpret and Understand the Passage – After prayerful, careful, Spirit-lead in-depth study you can now begin to interpret and understand the meaning of your passage. What do you understand and believe this passage to be teaching? Use the following to come to a proper interpretation of the passage; the cultural and historical situation, the context of the passage, the grammatical analysis, the word study, the exegetical outline, the doctrines in the passage, the exegetical main idea, your observations and questions and answers. Check your work by consulting commentaries and other resources.
Identify If There Are Any Truths, Principles or Theological Concepts Not Plainly Stated in the Passage – Sometimes, but not always, there may be truths, principles and theological concepts that are not overtly and precisely stated in the text. Be careful not to make anything up here or to import some good biblical ideas, or heresies, that are not in your text. Stay with the plain teaching and main point of your passage.
If there are any truths, principles and theological concepts not plainly stated in the passage they must be clearly based on the doctrines in the text. Usually the exegetical points of the passage are already stated as a truth or principle. For example, the plain exegetical point from Deuteronomy 5:19 is “Do not steal.” In this instance it is also the only principle in the verse. Not every point or doctrine from the text will have, or need, a truth, principle and theological concept developed from it.
Leave It for 1-3 Days – Give it a rest. Let all that you have studied roll around in the back of your mind while you go on to other things. When you come back to your work you will find that you often have fresh insight. You will notice some theological and logical errors you previously overlooked. It will be easier to see the big picture and main idea of the passage. You will go at your work with renewed vigor and eagerness. Your sermon will be more crisp, clean and have more of your personality in it.
If you have been doing your work then you should know a lot about your passage and what it means. Now you need to take all of that information and put it together so it flows well and is relevant to life.
Also, in the composition phase you start to create the art of the sermon. There is room for creativity here. There is no room for creativity in the preparation and study phases. There is art to both the form and delivery of a sermon, here we are concerned with the form.
Write Down and Fill Out the Main Points of the Sermon – At this point you might want to rework your exegetical outline into a more homiletical outline based on the main point, doctrines, exegetical structure and any truths or principles not clearly stated. You need to make sure the structure of your sermon communicates well to your listeners and that it is easy to follow. But, as much as possible, try and base your preaching outline on the exegetical outline.
Write each point in a short precise sentence. These points should relate to the exegetical main point and what the passage is about. Prove and support each of your points with information from the following; the historical study, the contextual understanding, the grammatical analysis, the word study, the exegetical outline, your observations, the doctrines in the passage, the exegetical main idea, your questions and answers, commentaries and other resources, your interpretation and understanding of what the passage is about and any principles in the passage.
Show How all This Biblical Information Connects To and Impacts Life – After you do the hard work of diagramming, outlining, etc., etc. to find out the meaning of a biblical passage then you must connect the biblical data to life and the human condition. Specifically, you need to connect the theology of the passage and any other biblical principles in the passage to life and the human condition. Many preachers fail to do this and so their sermon is just a bunch of theological data unconnected to life. For a sermon to be applicable it must talk about God and all His truth to man (the whole counsel of God, Acts 20:27) and it must show how that truth affects life and the human condition.
Connect the main idea, doctrines, outline points, theology and principles to life and the human condition. What part of life and the human condition does this point deal with? What part of life and the human condition is this point like? What does this point say about life and the human condition? How does this point affect life and the human condition?
Illustrate – Illustration gives the people a mental picture of what you are talking about and helps them to understand your point. Find one biblical illustration and one real life illustration for each point. It is important that your illustration relates your point to the human condition. Make sure your illustrations are culturally relevant. Make sure the illustrations do not overshadow the point.
Apply the Points – Application is not condemnation, but it is a call to obedience and change. Find one or several applications for each point that relate it to the human condition the point deals with. Make sure the applications are culturally relevant.
Write Transitions Between All the Different Parts of the Sermon – When people check out of a sermon they usually do it at those little gaps between the points of a sermon. Be sure to clearly lead them from one point to the next. Clear transitions will help the people to easily follow you and you will lose less people along the way.
Write the transitions out word for word between the introduction and the first point, between each main point, between each sub-point, between each point and its illustration, between each point and its application, between the last point and the conclusion.
Write the Conclusion – Summarize and restate your exegetical main point. It is best to restate your points, truths, principles and how they connect to life. A good conclusion will help the people to remember what you have said. Land the plane! End the sermon! Write your concluding sentence.
Write the Introduction – A good introduction makes people eager to hear your sermon. Talk about how the main point of the passage deals with life and the human condition. This will gain their interest. Look for a short illustration that pictures both the main point and the human condition it deals with. It can provoke a question or stimulate a thought or paint a picture to be proven or illustrated. You need to relate to and connect with your audience. Make the introduction fairly short. Make sure you write a transition from your introduction to your first point.
Write a Title for the Sermon
Final Form of Your Sermon Notes – At the end of this process you will have your whole sermon written out word for word. I think it would be better if you did not take these notes into the pulpit with you, but this is strictly personal preference. You need to use the kind of notes that work best for you. I suggest the following trimmed down form of sermon notes because I think you will be more free in your delivery with them.
Write down your introduction word for word. Write your exegetical main point and outline on one to three pieces of paper with spaces between each point. Under each point of the outline write a few words or a sentence or two to remind you of the proof and support of the point, how this relates to life and the human condition, any truths or principles from the point, the illustration of the point, the application of the point and the transition to the next point. Write down your conclusion word for word.
© Steve Plodinec