By Yeow Chin Kiong
Just before King Solomon concluded the book of Divinely-inspired wisdom we now call “Ecclesiastes”, he penned, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). If the preacher had the topic of preaching God’s word in mind, he has been proven right, for there are very many (non-Divinely inspired!) books on the duty of preaching. Even if there weren’t any, the child of God must still obey the clear scriptural commandments to preach God’s word (Matthew 10:27; 2 Timothy 4:2) The declaring of God’s word to the world is necessary for mankind’s salvation and approval before its Maker (2 Timothy 3:14-17). In the words of the apostle Paul, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).
Like in any other area of life, preparation is the key to effective preaching. There are two matters of great importance as we set out to prepare a sermon: the sermon’s contents and its delivery. As regards contents there is no ambiguity; we are to preach God’s word each time we preach (2 Timothy 4:2). This is not to restrict all we utter while preaching to the very words of holy scripture, for that would result in very wooden communication. There will, of course, be a need for illustrations to clarify, explanations to enlighten and personal language and imagery used. However, all these necessary tools of human public speaking must be focused upon,- and revolve around,- words of scripture which convey the thoughts of God. When there is more human thoughts put into a sermon than portions of God’s word, there is a possibility that God’s message takes a back seat to human wisdom. This Christians are warned against (1 Corinthians 3:19; James 3:13-17).
The sermon is a presentation of God’s oracles and the preacher a spokesman of God’s oracles (1 Peter 4:11). The more of the scriptures verbalized correctly and clearly in a sermon the better. Also, while there are many matters of belief, conduct and hope which can be preached from the word of God, priority must be given to the gospel, for it alone is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). And the purpose of each sermon must always be to save sinners from the eternal dire consequences of their sins and to keep them saved.
Among non-scripture content which help make clear God’s word are definition of Bible words, illustrations and examples drawn from the world and worldly comparisons and contrasts, along with images (photographs and other graphics). Useful as these are, the preacher must ensure that they never “crowd out” the message of scripture which they are supposed to throw light upon. Hence, it would not be right to spend an inordinate amount of time on such non-scriptural content, nor to absentmindedly stray away from the scriptures themselves as a result of being so absorbed with them instead of the scriptures.
As they are important in sermons, the scriptures must be stressed and so presented as to be thought about by the hearers and not easily forgotten after the sermon ends. In this regard, quoting the scriptures verbatim is more to be desired than mentioning a scripture-reference to book, chapter and verse. Never assume your hearers will follow up on your reference in their own time, nor even that they will remember the reference itself! Also, do not quote the scriptures in a “dull” manner but place appropriate stress in important words. Do not succumb to the temptation to rush through a passage of scripture nor to truncate (i.er cut short) the reading of it. Preachers are heralds of God’s word and we must ensure that our hearers do not think less of God’s word,- at least not because of the slipshod or lackadaisical way we handle it when we deliver a sermon. If any among the hearers are non-Christians, it may just be that your sermon is the first and only occasion for them to be exposed to God’s saving message. If you mess it up, and they go away unimpressed by God’s revelation,- or, God forbid, more impressed by your wisdom than God’s revelation,- you may have done irreparable harm to these precious souls for whom Christ died.
If the topic and contents of a sermon is left to the preacher, it would be wise of him to first determine his purpose of delivering the sermon. A useful guide is the framework of “things that matter to the Christian” that the apostle Paul sets out in 1 Corinthians 13:13, ”And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Decide whether you wish to focus on building up your hearers’ “head” (FAITH, or “thinking”, which comes by hearing God’s word, Romans 10:17), “heart” (HOPE, or “feelings”, on attitudes, emotions or matters which are felt but not seen nor merely thought about, Romans 8:24) or “hands” (LOVE, or the “doing” of appropriate “works” of obedience, i.e. actions, conduct and behavior which compliments sacrificial affection, John 14:15). The importance of faith, hope and love is also stressed in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 5:8. Through sermons, the brethren must be regularly reminded to pursue faith, hope and love as all three are centered upon the gospel God’s power to save lost humanity (Romans 1:16)
Of course, in sermons as it is in life itself, faith, hope and love are inseparably related. It is just that you need to focus on one of the triumvirate of commendable Christian qualities in a sermon for optimal use of time. More to-the-point, you might want to touch upon all three aspects of Christian identity in one sermon, but be realistic about your hearers’ attention-span!
An example of a faith-building sermon on the resurrection of Jesus would be, “The Historicity of the Lord’s Resurrection” in which the various arguments for and against the resurrection are weighed. Its “hope” equivalent could be entitled, “The Lord’s Resurrection and Mine (1 Corinthians 15), encouraging the brethren not to falter nor fail as we await a resurrection of our body just like our Lord’s. A “love” sermon on the same topic could be “Neither Jew Nor Greek: The Lord’s Resurrection as the Great Equalizer (Ephesians 2:11-19)” on the need to eliminate racism and racial prejudice in society and especially among God’s people.
After you have decided upon what aspect of the Christian personality you wish to bring about positive, Biblical-oriented change, you must determine the type of sermon you wish to deliver. Simply put, sermons are either topical(where a number of scriptures are marshalled to see what God’s word says about one topic) or textual (where all the topics touched upon by a particular passage of scripture are expounded upon). A textual sermon is sometimes called an expository sermon, as it is mainly an expounding of what one portion of scripturesays about as many matters as the passage touches upon (as opposed to a topical sermon, which is an expounding of a number of scripture passages about a single topic). As an example, concerning the Lord’s Supper, a topical sermon could be entitled, “The Supper Our Lord Established” looking at all the Gospel accounts of the Communion (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:13-20; and also 1 Corinthians 11:23-34, where Paul quotes Jesus). A textual sermon on the Lord’s Supper could be entitled “Until He Comes – The Purpose of the Lord’s Supper”, (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)” in which a commentary-like exposition of the 12 verses constitutes the sermon, looking at various aspects of the Supper contained in just one passage.
After deciding upon the primary purpose and type of sermon to be delivered comes the arduous task of crafting (i.e. writing) the sermon. Writing the sermon down in considerable detail is preferred to preaching ex tempore (Latin, meaning “at the time”, i.e. without preparation). To save time turning to the pages of the Bible, passages of scripture to be quoted in the sermon can be written down in full, even if the preacher intends to quote from memory. Collected and curated, sermon notes can be improved upon with each successive delivery, providing material for future publication for the good of the Kingdom. If God’s words are to be preserved for posterity (Matthew 28:19-20; Revelation 22:18-19), so too should scripturally-sound sermons as an influence for good beyond the pulpit and pew.
There are many things that need to be spoken about when we “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11) in a sermon. Preachers should encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11), convince, rebuke, exhort (2 Timothy 4:2), motivate (Joshua 1:9) and console (Romans 8:28). Also, there are a host of themes and concerns which the Bible speaks about, all for the purpose of equipping the faithful to do “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). Addressing “every good work” is a tall order for the most accomplished of preachers, even if he were allocated a series of sermons. However, in preparing and delivering any and every sermon, the preacher must never lose sight of the primary purpose of preaching,- the salvation of souls for eternity through obedient faith in the gospel.
Whatever the topic or matter he is preaching about from the pulpit on a particular day, a preacher must include reference to his Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for humanity. And, he must extend the invitation that his hearers obey the gospel plan of salvation (Romans 6:17-18), warning them of the eternally dire consequences of not doing so (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
No sermon is complete without a connection being made in it to the person and relevance of Jesus Christ and His gospel to mankind. The apostle Paul declared that his chief concern as an evangelist, missionary and preacher was, ”Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Indeed, whatever the medium of communication, the primary intention should be to promote belief in the “good news” of Jesus Christ (John 20:30-31).
Preachers yearn to “preach with power”, to deliver a “powerful sermon”. A sure way of achieving this is to focus upon,- or include,- the gospel in the sermon. The gospel message is the real “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), the message of the cross being God’s power to save mankind from the consequence of sin (1 Corinthians 1:18). Appropriate to its prime importance in the Biblical scheme of things, the gospel’s inclusion in a sermon where the focus is on another subject (like Christian leadership or Christian stewardship) should be natural (and not seemingly contrived or a mere add-on or afterthought). With but a little forethought, every matter under the sun that belongs to a sermon,- and every scripture in God’s word,- can be connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Lord Himself demonstrated in the lessons He taught (see, especially, Luke 24: 25-27, 44-47). A good preacher is one who can find this connection, work it into a particular sermon and declare it well to his hearers so as to allow God’s word to generate obedient faith in them.
As much creativity and effort as we put into crafting a sermon and preparing for a flawless delivery, and as much accolade as such sermons bring to their preachers, it will all be for nothing if the soul of his hearers are lost (Matthew 16:26). The Lord said it all, and clearly, when He declared His chief purpose for coming to mankind’s sphere of existence, “… for the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Indeed, beginning pulpit preachers are often reminded that, when all else fails,- whatever it was they sought to preach about other than the gospel,- “preach Jesus” (as Philip did to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:35). Even when a sermon works on its own topic other than the gospel, take pains to include reference to our Lord and Savior and the gospel call.
Since we should only give the best to our Master (Luke 10:27), it is only right that we work hard at crafting sermons and delivering them effectively. It is wrong to do any less (see Malachi 1;8). However, like the apostle Paul and the Lord’s early disciples, preachers should avoid drawing attention,- and adulation,- towards themselves and their ability behind the pulpit but, rather, should highlight God the Father and His Son and the plan of salvation.
As important to a sermon as its CONTENTS is its DELIVERY. Simply put, how we say something determines how our message is received by our audience as much as what we say. If we are committed to speaking the oracles of God (2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Peter 4:11) by quoting and making reference to the scriptures throughout a sermon, and if we will always include references to Jesus Christ and an invitation to obey His gospel in our message, we still have to give serious thought to matters like the duration of our sermon, the arrangement of its contents, how we highlight points of emphasis, how particular needs of the hearers should be met and how audience attention can be attained and retained.
At least two scriptures are pertinent as regards what our sermon-delivery seeks to achieve: Nehemiah 8:7-8 and Acts 28:23-24. Taken together, these scriptures,- the former from the Old Testament and the latter from the New,- tell us the purpose of God’s communication with humankind, that is, to explain His thoughts to us and to persuade us to believe these truths and obey Him.
After the exile of God’s people in Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls under Nehemiah, all the Israelites who could hear with understanding assembled to hear God’s law declared (Nehemiah 8:2). In addition to the faithful reading of the Law to those assembled (Nehemiah 8:3), what had been read aloud was explained to the audience. “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozab ad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8). As a consequence, the people rejoiced greatly, “… because they understood the words that were declared to them” (Nehemiah 8:12).
So, a preacher should provide his hearers with maximum exposure to the word of God itself. He only adds his own words, explanations, stories and graphics so that his audience can understand God’s words which he has shared with them. This primary purpose must always have the hearers’ interest at heart. Bombastic language, unexplained, hinders understanding, as do careless articulation of words, bad grammar, a “speeding bullet” of a sermon and a lack of any emphasis or stress on the major points of the sermon. Also to be avoided are sermons the contents of which lack logical flow or which are interspaced with irrelevant jokes, personal reflections and other material which have no connection to the contents. If graphics are used, their display must be well-synchronized with the oral delivery of the sermon, and not by themselves be a distraction (as “crowded” slides, misplaced or even eye-catching animation, fonts, pictures and graphics can be).
When he reached Rome, following his appeal to have his case heard by Caesar (Acts 28, following Acts 25:11-12), the apostle Paul grabbed the opportunity to preach to all who were curious and would hear. What he did is described in Acts 28:23-24 “So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved”. Obviously, the Old Testament scriptures were read aloud along with Paul’s inspired commentary regarding their meaning in the Christian Age. As it was for the Ethiopian Eunuch, explanation of fulfilled prophecy was necessary (Acts 8:27-35) for the Romans who needed something important besides,- persuasion.
From Paul’s preaching in Rome in this instance we learn that the preacher must be prepared to address his hearers’ “head” (or intellect) with his explanations as well as their “heart” (or emotions) and “hands” (or will to act). The preacher must not be so stoic as to eschew emotional illustrations and anecdotes, for the act of persuading requires prodding, appealing, causing fear, engendering strong, positive feelings and such emotions which move people to act instead of just listen and acknowledge. Very important to the preacher for the act of persuading is his own credibility,- his whole life, no less,- which makes other individuals want to be convinced by him. When he adds words of explanation and persuasion to scripture in a sermon, his hearers must not think him a hypocrite.