"…to the praise of the glory of His grace…" Ephesians 1:6

Teach the truth of God’s Word: Get it right – Live it out – Love the people: What the Bible teaches about sermon preparation and how I have tried to practice it

Teach the truth of God’s Word: Get it right – Live it out Love the people
What the Bible teaches about sermon preparation and how I have tried to practice it

Sermon preparation and preaching is far from the only thing I do as a pastor, but it’s an important part of my role in shepherding. For those interested, here is how I prepare. I read the text and read it in context, then strive to find the CIT (central idea of the text). I consider the authorial intent (what is the author’s purpose – what is he trying to communicate, what is his pastoral concern). I look for the glory of God in the text because that it the great theme of the Bible and we should expect it to be in every text. I think about how this points to Jesus or speaks of Jesus – the One who most clearly has revealed the glory of God to us and particularly look for allusions or paths to the cross where that glory is most brilliantly displayed. I think about the original readers, place myself in the story, put the people I am preaching to and shepherding in the story, ask questions of the text, look at grammatical and language issues, pray and seek the help of God’s Spirit.
I try and determine what I think are the main points that need shared. I read and listen to others – while repeating the previous steps – taking what others say and comparing with the text and through prayer reconsider. When I am helped by others and I think they get it right – I consider whether the way I was helped is something the body would be helped by as well – I compare that with other things I am seeing in the text.

I am not suggesting that this is the one way to prepare sermons. Others preparing to preach and teach may do it differently. We are not all gifted the same. Paul was not Apollos and Timothy was not Peter. I am amazed at how certain people in our church can see and do things with art that I can’t even imagine. I’m thankful for poets and songwriters that use their natural and spiritual giftings to glorify God and serve the body. Other preachers may prepare differently. God may use their gifts differently. God has helped me to become a good reader. I can read fast and comprehend pretty well. I am pretty good at evaluating what is strong and correct in what someone says and writes and what isn’t clear or true. One of the things I am good at, and where the Spirit seems to help me, is in taking things that are pretty good and making them better. I do this in coaching and in teaching and in planning and in writing and in preaching.

Many times, the Lord gives me the joy of firsthand discovery in God’s Word – but that joy isn’t lessened by seeing something glorious about Jesus or His gospel that someone else shows me. If it were, then that would mean it’s primarily about me and only secondarily about His glory. God is most often a God of means. So, it is not surprising that He would use others to help me – that I might use others to help you and you might then help others.

In fact, this is the clear teaching of Scripture as Paul directs Timothy as to what ministry as a preacher in the church should look like. 2 Timothy 2:1-2. “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

If I run across a quote someone has used that I think might fit – then it is my practice to go and read it in its context – often I will find it online or purchase the book so that I can read the entire piece or at least the section that is relevant. If I read or listen to what I think might be a good illustration, I might check it out with some additional research, or I might think of something from my own life or experience that might correspond to it. I would never pretend I was someone else or that I’ve read something I haven’t. But in general, I am trying to get the text right and what I think this people need to hear and say it in the best possible way to glorify God and love well this flock. I want to prepare people for heaven and for living now as God’s children who love and trust Him more and help their love excel still more.

I’ve never felt it to be good communication or helpful to a listener for me to say, “Keller said, Keller said, Piper said, Spurgeon said” repeatedly in a message. I want them to rightly understand that God is speaking to me in various ways to help me to have a message for them from the Word of God. I source when I think it helps the listener – either by adding weight to something I am saying because Spurgeon said it, or Keller said it – or sometimes by surprise – that someone from an unexpected background says something. If it adds gravitas or weight to what I’m saying to cite then I will – and then sometimes I source because I want to encourage our people to listen to people and value them.

I know that others feel differently about this, but I have not felt that citing was essential if you were not publishing or seeking to profit off of what you were preaching. That was the way I was taught and what I have practiced.

After I have gotten what I think is a nearly finished message – usually on Saturday nights, I pray through the entire message for my own heart – hearing it and responding to it and then pray through it for the list of people in our church who might hear it. Often, I will make changes or add things as I am praying – or take away a phrase that might be hurtful or misunderstood. Sometimes, I am more diligent with this than other times, but it is my practice and pursuit – with the hope that every word might be received not as the word of men, but for what it is, the very word of God and that it might be helpful to our people in having Christ fully formed in them and in preparing them for heaven.

Then by God’s grace I preach with all my heart and all my joy what I have prepared, and the Spirit has consistently given me much help and much joy in this over the years. I’ve been sick or weak or distracted by some family struggle or church struggle and yet God has consistently helped me to preach with joy and power and tears the beauty of who He is for the good of His people.
The emphasis I see in the Scriptures is to teach the truth, to live the truth and love the body – striving to see Jesus fully formed in them. That has been my goal and practice.

Let me mention some Scriptures that have informed my view of sermon preparation because what matters most is what God says about a matter.

2 Timothy 2:15 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” This verse emphasizes that preaching preparation is work. It doesn’t speak to what that work looks like and it seems to indicate that the shame would be in not getting the truth right. The overwhelming emphasis of Scripture in regard to preaching and teaching is by the Spirit’s help to communicate the truth – get the passage right and live it out so that you are not a hypocrite and do so for the building up or good of the body – or do so in love.

1 Corinthians 12:7-11 This is a passage about different spiritual gifts in the body. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” As a preacher, I should strive to use my gifts for the glory of God and the good of the body.

Philippians 1:14-18 “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul is saying that if someone has bad motives but gets the truth right, he rejoices. I think motives matter, but Paul speaks this way in order to elevate the importance of the truth. Content matters. Get the gospel right!

Galatians 1:6-9 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Here Paul says that if your motive is as good as an angel’s, but you get the gospel wrong you should be accursed. Again, he is saying – getting the gospel right is what matters immensely.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – In the context of instruction on the gift of prophecy (the proclamation of God’s Word). “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Get everything else right. Be unique. Be original. Be doctrinally accurate but fail to love and it is nothing.

Ezra 7:10 – “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Same emphasis. Study it so that you can live it and teach it to those you love.

Hebrews 13:7-17 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace…The writer of Hebrews goes on in verse 15 to say, Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Same emphasis – speak the Word – get it right – not strange teachers. Have a way of life that bears witness to Jesus – have a life that should be imitated in following Jesus. Let your praise and worship include doing good and sharing what you have – not hording it for personal praise. Then lead and preach and teach in a way consistent with giving an account for their souls – that’s love and joy and tears…

There are also clear instructions in 2 Timothy 2:1-2 “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Titus 2:1 “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

In 1 Timothy 4 Paul is giving Timothy instructions about false teaching and the need to teach the truth and practice godliness himself. He exhorts him to be an example and then he sums up that entire chapter like this in verse 16. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Teach the truth of God’s Word. Get it right. Live it out. Love the people.

The practice described above is something I have shared on many occasions over the years publicly and privately – sometimes in brief and sometimes more extensively – but I wanted to post it on our website for clarity and transparency.

This has largely been my practice for the nearly 40 years of my preaching and shepherding ministry. A year and a half ago, I was challenged about using one source in a few messages too extensively. It was not a common practice, but it had happened. I felt it was important to hear that accusation well and when I thought I had expressed repentance but when the person who had challenged me wasn’t fully satisfied, we got others in our church involved and I submitted myself for a lengthy time to their review and evaluation. Nine of the leaders in our church looked at that accusation and some determined that it was not best practice but unanimously determined that it wasn’t sin. I listened and made changes and began citing more in my messages and on our website and in emails to our church and have strived carefully not to lean on one source as exclusively for any message since.

I don’t always reference who I am paraphrasing and receiving help from in my messages as I preach – not because I don’t want you to be thankful for these men – and certainly not that you would think all these thoughts are somehow original with me – but simply in hopes of communicating as clearly as possible what God has taught me through the Scriptures and what He has taught me very often through His Spirit’s work in other men as they have studied the Scriptures and what I believe He wants us to hear.

If you ever want to know more about where I might have learned some truth or what might be a clearer and more scholarly treatment of a passage, I will always be glad to direct you to the sources I am using – and give those sources their proper credit. I am glad the Holy Spirit has spoken through His Word to many faithful men and I don’t come week by week to stand on my own in what I believe we need to hear from a passage. He is the Great Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

So, all that to say – to God be all the glory. Praise God for His faithful work in wise, godly, spiritual men in the past and praise God for His using of donkeys and men who are nothing more than vessels who tremble at His Word.

It has been my intent and practice to regularly deflect praise away from me and to God and others both in public and private ways. May this be used further to that end.

Sola deo gloria
Pastor Joe