How Much Exegetical Material Should You Share in Your Sermon?
The science of solid biblical interpretation is essential to effective preaching. Yet it must be paired with the art of contemporary communication to bring the message home.
But how much of that “science” and exegetical material should you share in your sermon in order to preach God’s Word effectively?
In other words: how much of the “then” should you share to help them get the “now” meaning and see the connection?
In their second edition of Preaching God’s Word, Terry G. Carter, J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays offer this insight:
If your audience does not make the connection between the exegetical meaning in the text and the applicational meaning you are proclaiming to them, your message loses its tie to biblical authority.
Among other homiletical insights, they provide actionable advice for anyone seeking to gauge how much exegetical material one should share in their sermon in order to bring life transformation.
Here are five areas to consider with one key insight from each.
Every culture contains certain expressions, ideas, and ways of communicating unique to that culture. The Bible is no different.
“Explaining cultural-bound language, idioms, and parables is essential for a preacher dealing with a twenty-first-century audience” (74).
For example, the authors point to Jesus’ language of “hating” our family in order to be his disciple (Luke 14:26). Most people would question such language. Yet such hyperbole was a hallmark of Jesus’ teaching.
So they suggest: “Explain in the sermon that Jesus was the consummate rabbi (teacher) who used exaggeration often and effectively to teach truth…Explaining this rabbinic tendency helps your people see the emphasis Jesus intended in the exaggeration” (75).
Given our historical distance from the Bible’s original audience, a passage often requires explaining the original historical setting. Case in point: Jeremiah 29:1–14.
Failure to consider the context of that letter can lead the audience to miss proper application of an often-quoted passage, Jeremiah 29:11, thinking that this promise applies to any situation in which they find themselves. (75)
Given our age of biblical illiteracy, preachers need to help their audience learn the story the Bible tells, including its history.
Here’s a tip: “This entire background overview can be done in only a paragraph of the sermon, but such information gives your listeners a proper understanding of the purpose and intent of Jeremiah’s letter,” as well as any passage of the Bible.
Job is a good example of why the theological context of a passage is important.
Through no fault of his own, Job lost everything. To explain why, his “friends” reverted to the retributive theology of the day: good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. So God was clearly punishing Job for his wickedness.
Without that context people can get lost—and perpetuate bad theology. That’s where you come in: make clear the theological background of Job’s troubles, and other parts of Scripture.
“[Explaining] theological context will strengthen your audience’s comprehension…It takes little time in the sermon to share this information, but the rewards in terms of communication are well worth it” (77).
Making grammatical or semantic details clear is an important part of the preaching process. But here an important insight:
When necessary, present these explanations briefly and in a nontechnical way. (77)
It can be illuminating to point out how often a word or phrase is repeated in a passage. Does the way a tense of a verb is used in a sentence convey a special idea or illuminate the passage? Then share that.
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells believers to be “perfect” as God is perfect. How did the original audience understand this word? Sharing that it carries the idea of “completeness” and growth toward a goal will not only clear up confusion, but also make it applicable.
Don’t shy away from sharing such details if it is important.
Because the literary context surrounding a passage affects its meaning, spell out that context deliberately and clearly. This includes the audience, chapter themes, and surrounding passages.
While some may see this as unnecessary, believing people will notice it on their own, the authors offer an important preaching tip:
never assume too much of your audience in terms of diligence in searching out a context by themselves. (81)
The problem is that “many people in churches today have not been trained to look for literary context when reading or listening to a passage” (81). So helping people appreciate appropriate contextual information “serves to deepen that knowledge and provide new (and accurate) insight into the passage” (81).
“If you help your listeners see how the original audience would have understood the passage, by including the relevant cultural, historical, theological, and grammatical issues from biblical times, your listeners will be much better equipped to understand what the passage means to them personally” (83).
Preaching God’s Word will help you know how much exegetical material to include in your sermons—as well as how to prepare, develop, and deliver them for the sake of life transformation.
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