Sound preaching depends on sound interpretation. If one desires to preach the whole counsel of God, proper interpretation is of paramount importance. To unpack the story of Scripture and share God’s full revelation, one must be properly equipped to faithfully carry out this duty. We preach the whole gospel, the whole truth, God’s whole plan of redemption. If you get the meaning of the text wrong, you will build your sermon a foundation of sand. Interpretation is the most important aspect of sermon preparation and it is the preacher’s main work in preaching the whole counsel of God. If the sermon is going to have scriptural power, it must first have scriptural truth. The preacher must live with Paul’s challenge to Timothy at the forefront of his mind, “Be diligent to present yourself . . . as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tm 2:15).
Interpretation requires great self-discipline. Any attempt to shortcut the exegetical process may yield conclusions that miss the point of the text. As you interpret the text, your goal is to ascertain the author’s intended meaning of the passage, all the while understanding that there is both a divine Author and a human author. To accomplish this, you begin by studying the text’s literal, historical, and grammatical components. The literal aspect focuses on the meaning of the words of the Scripture. The historical aspect focuses on the author’s intended meaning to his original audience, and the grammatical aspect refers to the grammar and syntax of the text. Remember, a text cannot mean something now that it never meant. That’s why every step of interpretation is essential. To rightly interpret the passage you’re considering, follow these steps, generally in the following order.
Analyze the Text
First, you must analyze the text.With notepad on the table and pen in hand, I intuitively bombard the text with questions, such as:
• Who is writing, and to whom is he writing?
• When was this book written, and what is going on in the larger context of God’s dealings with His people?
• What are the key words of the text?
• What do the surrounding passages communicate?
When I do this, I will typically have a photocopied page of the sermon passage so I can write on the text before me. This makes it easy to underline key words, draw arrows of connection, and scratch out questions in the margin. Usually my initial engagement with the English text leads me to dig deeper into the original languages. Linguistic tools can be of inestimable value at this stage of your work. The right tool will give you quick clarity into a word or phrase that at first glance is puzzling.
Next, you must zoom out from your text. A central aspect of expository preaching is that it takes every passage’s context into consideration. Therefore, you must consider the passage’s immediate and broader contexts. Like a microscope that zooms in and out, think of contextual analysis as a series of concentric circles that starts with the innermost realm, works outward, and then works its way back in toward the text. In other words, first look at the passage under consideration. Notice the connection words that link it to the surrounding verses, and then evaluate the broader section. Ask yourself, “What themes are carried forward? What words are reoccurring?” Next, move to the larger scheme of the book itself. Ask, “What are the themes of the book? What are the concerns the author is addressing? What is the cultural setting in which this book was penned?” Finally, always be careful to place the passage you’re considering in the larger light of redemptive history. Ask yourself questions like, “What does this passage communicate explicitly or implicitly about Christ? How does this passage fit into the overall narrative of God’s dealings with His people?”
After finishing your initial mining of the text, broaden your study to include cross-referencing and the tracking of tangential issues. Other study helps that come into play at this stage of the process include biblical background tools, lexicons, and commentaries. You’ll find commentaries essential at this stage of your sermon preparation. On average you should consult between five and twelve commentaries on any particular passage for any particular sermon. You will find immense value in interacting with the great minds of the faith. Commentaries help you avoid aberrant interpretations. They can also kick-start your study if you are having difficulty unlocking the meaning of the text.
Normally you will know that you’re ready to transition from this step when you can succinctly state the meaning and the significance of the passage. Ask yourself, “Can I explain the passage in a couple sentences, if only in unpolished form, if asked?” Furthermore, you will know that you are through the analytical phase if no relevant textual question remains unanswered in your mind. The sooner you realize you’ll never be able to exhaust every resource available on every given passage, the better. The number of times a week you preach, coupled with your various life responsibilities, reminds you that you have limited hours to work on a sermon. So don’t try to know everything you could ever know about your text. Rather, try to arrive at a point where you know everything you can know, given your time and space limitations, and are confident you’ve arrived at accurate and clear exegetical conclusions. If these issues are settled, then you’re ready to tackle your sermon outline.
Develop Your Outline(s)
Another critical aspect of your sermon preparation is your outline. Think of your outline as stepping-stones through a garden. It supplies direction through a passage, and it can also point the audience in the right direction of application and action. Bryan Chappell rightly describes the significance of a sermon outline, writing, “A well-planned sermon begins with a good outline—a logical path for the mind. If you had to instruct someone on how to go from New York to Los Angeles, you would not advise them to ‘head that away.’ You would provide a map
identifying landmarks to keep them on course in each stage of their journey. The features of a preacher’s outline serve a similar purpose, keeping listeners and speaker oriented throughout a message. The outline of a sermon is thus the mental map that all follow.” Furthermore, Chappell goes on to argue, “The advantages of clear outlines for listeners are obvious: Good outlines clarify the parts and progress of a sermon in listeners’ minds. Preachers may forget, however, that outlines are also important for the speaker.”
The process begins by creating an exegetical outline. That is, in structural form, you are seeking to understand what the text says. The outline will help you grasp not only the meaning of the text, but also its contours and its movement. The exegetical outline is not for public presentation and is certainly not intended for public consumption. The quicker you are confident in your exegetical outline, the better. Drafting an exegetical outline that rightly unlocks the meaning and the structure of the text is like a turnstile in an airport. You cannot proceed further in preparation until you have it nailed. At times it will be elusive for you, but keep looking, thinking, and praying, and before long, an outline will clarify itself. After the exegetical outline is completed, you can develop your homiletical outline. There are several goals for this outline.
First, your homiletical outline should be clearly drawn from the text. This is nonnegotiable. In fact, it is perhaps the sine qua non of expository preaching. The outline points must clearly and unquestionably be derived from the text under consideration. Second, and more specifically, you want it to communicate the meaning of the text. In other words, if a church member wrote down your sermon outline in the margin of his or her Bible, and then flipped to that passage years later, your goal is that it would lead the reader logically through the text in a way that enables him or her to grasp its main idea, as well as its flow and pertinent application. Third, the outline should be memorable. Though polished sermon outlines can be overkill, try to create a sermon outline that will have staying power, even to a passive listener. Don’t be cute or schmaltzy and, when in doubt, err on the less flashy side. As it relates to alliteration, this method seems to me to be generally tired and overused. Perhaps I feel this way because so much alliteration is simply not well done. What is worse, too many preachers bend the meaning of the text in an attempt to gain rhyme and rhythm in their outline. Don’t make too much of alliteration. If it fits and easily comes to mind, great. If not, don’t force it.
Lastly, if possible, your outline should contain words of instruction and application. All great preaching calls for a verdict; and while this does not have to happen in the outline, the outline can definitely be a strategic place to add punch to the sermon. But again, don’t force it. Your homiletical outline will likely remain a work in progress, perhaps even until the time of sermon delivery. This is different from your exegetical outline, which you really need to have hammered out before you move on to the next step. Feel free to continually tweak your homiletical outline along the way.
Interpretation is perhaps the hardest, yet most rewarding aspect of sermon preparation. To do it properly often requires immense time and clear thinking. When done properly, it leaves the preacher excited for Sunday to come. Remember, powerful preaching is derived from correct interpretation. Powerful preaching values the whole of Scripture. See to it that before you preach any passage, you first know exactly what it means. Be excited to preach the whole counsel of God on Sunday. Be faithful in your interpretation. Be faithful to preach all of inspired Scripture.
Editor's Note: The following article appeared in full in the latest issue of the Midwestern Magazine. The full issue can be viewed free online.