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How to preach a good sermon

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Part 9: Rightly Handling God's Word

(Content of this section: The hard work phase of sermon preparation - study!)


So you've taken your sermon to the Lord in prayer and sought Him for His message for the congregation for that occasion. As a result you've received from Him a leading on what He wants you to minister. You've also probabily got an idea on what the scriptures are or scripture passage is that will form the core of that ministry.

Now the hard work must begin. You have to commence a time of diligent study, for the Word of God - the scriptures or scripture passage - you want to minister has to be handled with the utmost reverence. Your sermon must not misrepresent those scriptures or that scripture passage. Your sermon must not hijack the Word of God and harness it for a purpose or aim that the author did not have.

(Content of this section: There's a diligent study process needed in preparing a sermon)


In order to faithfully represent scripture you have to faithfully study scripture. You have to go beyond a mere superficial reading and prayerfully consider the Word of God you are minded to present in your sermon. This needs to be a process of checking that the scriptures or scripture passage you have is rightly chosen. It is a process you must engage in so you can be confident you can rightly expound it.

This study process is all about you looking to ensure that your exposition will be sound. The apostle Paul states the need for this process in his second letter to Timothy,

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 - NKJV

(Content of this section: Look at the whole passage surrounding the scripture you want to present in your sermon)


The scriptures or scripture passage you are minded to include in your sermon needs reviewing, reflecting upon and praying over. So where do you start? Start by looking at the context of your scripture. You can't properly be appreciating the message of a scripture without appreciating the context it is found in.

Appreciating the context requires that you recognise what is the whole unit of scripture in which your chosen scripture or scripture passage appears in. If it's a scripture passage, have a close look at whether it's a complete passage or if there's actually a larger passage that it belongs to. If it's a single scripture, establish what is the whole passage that is appears in and have a close look at that. A whole passage is one that happily stands on its own. It has a begin point and end point which allows it to speak for itself.

What’s the purpose of first studying this whole passage? Studying the whole passage should allow you to recognise your scripture’s local context and, hopefully from there also, its wider Biblical context. A knowledge of this context is essential for a proper understanding of the scripture, for all scripture has an organic connection to the whole body of text given to us in the Bible. This body of text is called the Canon.

(Content of this section: Examine how your scripture relates to the whole passage it's contained in)


Right, so now you've established what the "able to stand on its own" passage is that contains your scripture or scripture passage. Remember that what you're trying to do here is properly appreciate the context of the scriptures or scripture passage you have in mind to use in your sermon. The next step therefore is to decide what is the passage’s theme. Study the containing passage and then write down what you make out its theme to be. But don't stop there. Also write down what you make out the passage's purpose to be. This is a matter of answering the question, "What was the goal that the original writer, narrator or speaker had in addressing this passage to the original audience?"

Once you got an appreciation of the containing passage's theme and purpose then start asking yourself questions about your scripture's relationship to that containing passage. What role is your chosen scripture playing within the passage? What relationship does it have to the theme and purpose of the passage? Do the answers to these questions confirm that your chosen scripture can rightly be used in presenting your sermon message?

Sometimes in this process you discover your chosen scripture isn’t as appropriate to your sermon message as you thought it was and you need to chose another one. Other times, you realise you have to change or modify your sermon message to properly reflect the truth and counsel the scripture presents. Still other times, you come to realise that actually you need to present the whole Bible passage your chosen scripture appears in so that your sermon becomes a a full and genuine exposition of it.

(Content of this section: Look at the big picture the Bible reveals so as to appreciate better the details of scripture)


Let me say all this in another way. As you study God’s Word in preparation for your sermon look at the big picture first - the theme and purpose of a passage and the theme and purpose of the whole Bible - before you look at the details. The details can only be rightly understand in the context of the big picture. However, once you have got that big picture start to look at how the details interact with one another and how they are presented. Often the relationships between the details reveal special features of the passage or scripture that bring it to life and relevancy.

Why is there a need for such a thorough study? Because you want to preach a good sermon. A good sermon is one in which the Word of God is preached and you get an exposition of it and no hint of imposition on it. In your preaching you are to draw out of the scripture - that is to expose - its inherent truth and godly counsel and not write into it - that is to impose - your preconceived notions, personal ideas or doctrines of men.

You want exposition of the Word of God, not imposition on it! This is what Paul was introducing to Timothy in that scripture I quoted early regarding the need to be diligent as a minister so you are "rightly dividing the word of truth." In the academic world this the art of ensuring we are such "a workman" is called hermeneutics.

Professor emeritus of preaching Sydney Greindanus writes that the first rule of hermeneutics is, "that every text must be understood in its context according to the author's intent and not according to the preacher's predilection."

(Content of this section: Ensure there's a harmony between your scripture passage's theme and purpose and that of your sermon)


In his book on interpreting and preaching biblical texts called "The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text" Sydney Greindanus also writes on the need for the sermon to be in harmony with its main Bible text. Your sermon's theme and purpose needs to be in harmony with the theme and purpose of the main scripture passage you have for your sermon.

If you have followed my sermon preparation advice above you will have written down what you discern to be the theme of your main scripture passage. You will also have written now what you discern to be the goal or purpose that the author of that passage had. Now pay attention to the harmony between that theme and purpose and the theme and purpose of your sermon. They should be in harmony with one another. Indeed, they should sound very similar.

Write down the theme and purpose of your sermon. Is it sounding very similar to what your wrote down as the theme and purpose of your main scripture passage? Or are you finding as you attempt to do this that it sounds quite different to it? If it is sounding quite different then you've got something wrong. Perhaps it means you need to reconsider your choice of main scripture passage. It certainly means you need to take your whole sermon message back to the Lord in prayer to get a clearer leading from Him on it.

By the end of your sermon preparation, you should have the theme and purpose of your sermon written down. This will help you greatly when it comes time to preach. It maintain you in your preaching focussed and on track with the message the Holy Spirit has put in your heart for your congregation. The theme will be relevant to your congregation. The purpose will be one accomplishing a work of the Spirit in the congregation. Your congregation will be blessed by it.

(Content of this section: Take care that your understanding of the words in scripture is accurate)


With this taken care of it's time to look towards the details. You've got your sermon's theme and purpose so now let's make sure your sermon's details are right too. This involves reflecting diligently on words and phrases used both in your main scripture passage and any supporting scriptures. At this point, there is also a real need to keep in mind that the words in a scripture in your Bible are a translation from the original Bible language.

Watch out, therefore, that you don’t ever base your preaching on a word from your language that is a poor or wrong representation of the original language word. The context of the word should alert you to the possibility! Therefore be diligent and sensitive in your study. If you are alerted to a possible problem then look up what words have been used in an alternative translation. Better still, discover what the original language’s word was (the Greek or the Hebrew) and then look up a scholarly definition for that word.

Also stay alert to the possible effect of the passage of time on a translation. Your translation may have been completed a generation or more before you and therefore the words the translators selected may no longer have quite the same meaning or usage today as they did then. The result of all this is that what you hear in a particular word the translator used may not be what was originally intended to be heard! Make sure you're hearing it right just as the translator intended and not as you superimpose on it.

(Content of this section: Dealing with reductionism, that is, the narrowing of the meaning of words)


Often, doing this type of study can set you free not only from faulty word usage in your sermon but also from reductionism. Reductionism is a debilitating desease people have in their relationship with words.

Reductionism is where words have been reduced in meaning over time by watering their meaning down or by restricting their meaning. Words that have entered our religious vocabulary are particularly susceptible to this. For example, the word 'repent' has been reduced in religious vocabulary to the meaning of repent from sin but its original meaning is one of a complete turn around! The original meaning calls for a 180 degree turn around from walking the opposite way to God to walking in company with Him!

I hope you’re recognising that all this study is going to be of great benefit to both you and your congregation. It will lead to a good sermon, a sermon in which there is sound exposition of the Word of God in a way that builds up, encourages and rightly exhorts.

Preview of content in next part:

  • Looking to discover how scripture speaks to your congregation today
  • God's Word is recorded in written form so it can continue to speak to us
  • Bridging the gap between the ancient text and your contemporary hearers
  • Show the congregation scripture has counsel, comfort and guidance for them
  • An example of recognising the pertinence of a scripture for today

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