As preachers, we all share the same task—to equip the church by preaching the Word so our people will love and serve one another (and others) throughout the week (Eph. 4:11–16). To fulfill this task faithfully, we must ask a number of questions of every passage we preach.
So, then, perhaps the most important question is not, “How long should I spend preparing my sermon?” The more important question is, “How long will it take me to work through the process of answering all the questions I have of this passage?”
Let me explain by walking through the six main questions I ask of each passage I’m preparing to preach. (You can find a sermon preparation worksheet with these questions at the Simeon Trust website.)
1. How has the author organized the passage?
Every passage has a structure that reveals the author’s emphasis. We want to preach the author’s emphasis, not ours. To do that faithfully, we must discern how the author has organized the text, and allow that structure to shape the sermon’s emphasis and structure.
Throughout the week, I read the text devotionally each morning, praying for the Spirit’s guidance. But my sermon prep officially begins when I sit down to discern the structure of the passage. Because each text-type has its own strategies for discerning structure, you’ll first need to identify the type you’re working with. When working with New Testament letters, for example, grammar, discourse analysis, key words, repeated words, transitional words (so, and, but, therefore, thus), verbs, chiasms, and more reveal the text’s structure.
We want to preach the author’s emphasis, not ours.
When preaching through narrative, tools of grammar and discourse analysis can be helpful, but generally, you’ll want to consider plot (setting, conflict, climax, resolution), characters, changes in scene, voice (first person, second person), time (present, past, future). When preaching through poetry, say the Psalms, or much of the prophetic literature, you’ll want to consider grammar, of course, but you’ll also need to take into account changes in scene, time, and voice along with parallelism, stanzas, comparisons and contrasts.
Admittedly, this is hard—sometimes long, tedious—work. But this is the most important work of sermon preparation, since the structure will reveal the author’s emphasis. And if we are to preach the emphasis of the passage, we want to get this right. To be sure, as we move through the prep process, other questions may shed light on the text’s structure. Don’t think of this as a linear process; it’s a hermeneutical spiral. Each question helps shed light on answers to the other questions.
2. What light do various contexts shed on this passage?
Having discerned the structure, I also want to see what light the various contexts shed on my passage. The immediate literary context (the passage before and after) helps me to root my particular passage in the unfolding narrative of the book. I want to understand where I am in the author’s argument. Of course, we can keep moving out from our immediate passage to understand how it’s functioning in the entire book. The more we know about the book we’re expositing, the better we’ll preach any given passage.
The more we know about the book we’re expositing, the better we’ll preach any given passage.
Often, the historical context will also shed light on our text. When we can’t gain the historical context from Scripture itself, we may turn to Bible dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, and commentaries for help.
Additionally, we want to understand what light other biblical texts shed on our passage. Is our passage quoted elsewhere? Does the author deal with the same issue elsewhere? How is the theme the author treats here developed throughout Scripture?
And of course, how did the biblical authors apply it to their original audience? Context protects us from ripping texts out of their original settings and allows us to better apply the Bible to our audience today.
3. What is the author’s main point?
The point of reading the passage devotionally each day, discerning the author’s structure, and placing the passage in its original context is to understand the author’s main point, which becomes the main focus of our sermon.
I want to identify in one sentence the primary point the original author is making. And I want to state it as clearly and specifically as possible in the context of the original hearers. After identifying the text’s original point, I reflect on what light Christ sheds on my passage.
4. What gospel connections in my passage point to Christ?
As Christian preachers, we must preach Christian sermons. That may sound obvious, but it’s possible to preach a sermon from the Bible that’s not uniquely Christian. To preach a Christian sermon, we must legitimately connect our passage to the gospel. To do so, we’ll want to note any cross-references to the opposite testament from the one we’re preaching. We’ll want to develop a good sense of biblical theology.
As Christian preachers, we must preach Christian sermons. It’s possible to preach a sermon from the Bible that’s not uniquely Christian.
Other helpful strategies include considering promise-fulfillment, theological themes, typology, and systematic theology. Again, we’re asking what light does Christ (his life, death, resurrection, exaltation, return) shed on my passage, and what is the strongest connection to Jesus from which I can naturally preach the gospel?
5. What’s the main argument in my sermon from this passage?
I’m still not ready to write my sermon. At this point, I want to state the main argument I’ll make from the text under consideration. I want to preach the author’s main argument, but I want to say it in “us/today” language. So, I’ll try to restate the author’s main point, in light of Christ, in the language of application to my audience—all in one brief sentence. Now I’m ready to write the sermon.
6. What’s the structure of my sermon from this passage?
I want my sermon outline to reflect the structure of the original author but be stated in the language of my audience. My sermon points will serve my only main argument. Such brevity will help provide clarity.
Often, those of us who focus much attention on getting the text right don’t spend much time on clearly communicating it.
Often, those of us who focus much attention on getting the text right don’t spend much time on clearly communicating it. I want to be sure I have enough time to think carefully about application, connecting it as closely to my main argument and sermon points as possible. The passage should also shape my application.
However Long It Takes
I hope you can see why I argue that the most important question is not, “How long should I take to prepare a sermon?” The better question is, “How long will it take me to answer all the questions I have of this text in order to preach it faithfully?”
Again, the answer is, however long is necessary.
View previous installments in TGC’s Pastor’s Toolkit series.