How I prepare a sermon

Several people have recently asked me what process I go through in sermon preparation, so I thought I’d share it here. This is a far longer post than normal, but perhaps other preachers (particularly younger men) might find it useful.

There are five steps that are important to me:

  1. Divide: Firstly, I decide how many verses should I preach on by looking for divisions at the beginning and end of the passage. I’m looking for a natural unit in the passage that has plenty to say. With compact historical literature (like 2 Kings or Chronicles) it’s usually a story. With other narrative literature (e.g. the Pentateuch, or the Gospels) it’s usually a scene. With epistles its usually a large paragraph. With prophetic books its usually a complete oracle or sermon.
  2. Dissect: Then I split up, or dissect the passage by determine the main point of the passage, and the sub-points which serve it. This is strongly related to the first step. If the ‘division’ I’ve chosen has more than one main point, it’s too long. But it must have a few sub-points that feed the main point. If it hasn’t, it’s too short.
  3. Discover: Next I try to carefully exegete each point to discover the original meaning and principles. It means understanding both the meaning to the original hearers/readers, and the timeless principles that flow from it. When dealing with the Old Testament I look at the first step (the original meaning) purely from an Old Testament perspective, but the second step (the timeless principles) through a New Testament lens. There must be an inarguable link between these two steps. Every member of the congregation must be able to see how I got from (a) What the Bible said, to (b) What the Bible means. If they can’t, there’s no power in the message – it’s man’s words, not God’s Word.
  4. Digest: Fourth, I think and pray through each principle to determine the application, to me, and try to digest the truth. If I haven’t taken this truth on board myself, I can’t preach it. This is where a lot of the prayer comes.
  5. Disseminate: Finally, all of this needs to go in a form which can be passed on. In other words, the sermon can now be written. I pass this teaching on to my congregation, they need to apply it to themselves and be able to pass it on to others. This means short points made easy to understand and apply. To maximise the impact, the application needs to be focussed, not vague, but it also must apply to the whole congregation, not just one or two. I’ll want my sermon to have an introduction, a few points, and a conclusion. Within each point I’ll want teaching, illustration and application. The whole thing must be very tightly linked to the text of the Bible – if it’s not, it’s my words not God’s Word.

Let me show you how this works out in practice. As I’m typing this, I’m preparing a sermon on Amos 2. I’m not going to pretend this a perfect (or even a great) model sermon – after all, I’m writing this post as I’m preparing the message! It might turn out be dreadful! But I’ll take you through the process as I go. You’ll see the theory, even if the practice falls short of my hopes!

Divide

This is relatively straightforward for this passage. The structure of chapters 1 and 2 is very clear. 1:1-2:3 is judgement on the surrounding nations. 2:4-5 is judgement on Judah. And 2:6-13 is judgement on Israel (the focus of the rest of Amos). So the only question is what we do with 2:4-5 – does we put Judah with the surrounding nations, or with Israel?

In the end I decided to include it with Israel. That’s because the ‘crimes’ and ‘punishment’ for Judah are far more similar to those of Israel than those of the surrounding nations (they’re ‘religious’, rather than war-crimes).

So we start at 2:4. I wouldn’t want to finish at 2:5 because I feel the message of 2:6f is very similar to 2:4-5. I don’t want to repeat myself two weeks running. So it seems sensible to keep going until the end of the chapter. That’s certainly a natural unit, probably one oracle. I can already see some obvious sub-points, so it looks like I’ll be able to dissect it well enough – but if not, I can always come back to this stage again.

Dissect

In order to dissect a passage, I use a little tool in Logos Bible Software. It’s designed to help with sentence diagramming, but I find it very useful for helping me to visualise where passages like this might be broken up. Here’s a screenshot. You can click for a full-size version.

At this stage it looks as though there are four sections, though the first two could possibly be combined. Verse 12 (“But you made the Nazarites drink wine…”) doesn’t quite fit into the structure and could perhaps warrant a point of its own. If so, the point would be that the Israelites are responsible for their fall because they suppressed the truth.

My headings are pretty useless at this stage. They’ll go through at least two significant changes as the sermon evolves. For the time being I’m simply trying to sum up each section as simply as possible.

Having got this far, I now need to verify my earlier decision to divide the passage and select 2:4-16 as my text. Remember, I’m looking for just one main point, with a few sub-points that serve it. The main point is clear “God will judge his own people”, and the sub-points do indeed serve it. The first two points explain the reason for the judgement and outline the punishment. The third point justifies God by demonstrating the fairness of the judgement – God is exonerated, and the people blamed. The fourth point explains the detail of the punishment.

(Actually, in explaining this it seems my third point in the screenshot isn’t quite right. The point in the screenshot “God gave them strength” describes verses 6-11, but not verse 12. On the other hand, “God is vindicated, the people are guilty” describes verses six through to twelve. That’s much more satisfactory.)

Excellent! So far, so good… (it’s not always as smooth as this!). One final check before I move on. This structure is pretty important for the development of the sermon. If it’s wrong, the whole sermon could go off in the wrong direction. So, for the first time, I check the commentaries.

It’s not a promising start. Douglas Stuart groups 1:3-2:16 without any further division. That’s not much help. Alec Motyer groups 2:4-3:2. He sees three major divisions (2:4-5, 2:6-16 and 3:1-2). Then he further splits 2:6-16 into 6-8, 9-11, 12, 13-16. It’s not radically different to my outline, but sufficiently different to make me stop and think. But I’m not convinced 3:1-2 fits better with chapter 2 than it does with the rest of chapter 3. And I do think that verse 12 fits nicely with 9-11 as I explained above (note, for example, the Nazirites in both verses 11 and 12). So let’s get a second opinion. David Hubbard puts 2:4-5 with chapter 1, rather than chapter 2. I understand the reasons for this, but I still think that Judah fits better with Israel than with the pagan nations. He then divides 2:6-16 into 6-8, 9-12, 13-16, so that mirrors my structure, at least. Good. Finally I check Gary Smith. He groups 2:4-16, and subdivides 4-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-16. That’s exactly the same! So, whether my structure is “right” could perhaps be debated, but I’m certainly confident that it’s at least helpful, and am quite happy to go forward with it. If it’s good enough for Gary Smith, it’s good enough for me. (I always thought he was the best commentator on Amos ;-) ).

I would usually use slightly more technical commentaries in addition to these, but Amos is not well-served by conservative critical commentaries (no NICOT, for example). I sometimes find non-conservative critical commentaries useful for fresh perspective if I’m particularly stuck, but I don’t waste my time with them unless I need to. I will also use older commentaries (particularly Calvin and Keil & Delitzsch), but older commentators rarely provide outlines or say too much about structure. So these four will do for now.

Discover

This is probably the longest process – discovering both the original meaning and the timeless principles in each section. I’m looking for one main truth within each section, and a small number of principles (ideally just one). With four points for this message, one truth and one principle for each point is already eight things for the congregation. Frankly, that’s enough.

Because it’s a long process, I won’t go into all the detail here. I rely heavily on Logos Bible Software for this process, but do use other commentaries that are not yet available in Logos. Logos gives you hundreds of resources that make this process quicker – you’ll get a feel for how I work by watching the screencast below (clicking on it opens a new window).

(If you’re a Logos user, and are interesting in seeing some of the settings that make this Workspace usable, there’s a second screencast that explains all that.) But several hours later, the end result is something like this:

  • Verses 4-5
    • Original meaning: Judah is condemned for despising the law of God. The punishment will be the same as that of the pagan nations (fire).
    • Timeless principle: Not treating God as God, is just as great a sin as not treating men as men.
  • Verses 6-8
    • Original meaning: Israel is condemned for hypocrisy and injustice. The nations were judged for sins against humanity. Judah is judged for sins against God. But Israel combines the two.
    • Timeless principle: Those who know the truth yet continue in sin, sin to a greater extent than even the pagans.
      1. The addition of blasphemy into the list of sins is a definite ‘step-up’ from the sins of the pagan nations.
      2. The sins of the pagan nations is that they thought of themselves more highly than their brothers. The sin of Israel is compounded because they think of themselves more highly than God.
      3. An additional principle is that when people turn their backs on God, God’s people suffer (v6).
  • Verses 9-12
    • Original meaning: God has done everything for the Israelites, but they have rejected him.
    • Timeless principles: Here there are definitely two principles that are both crucial. So I’ll break my rule and include both equally:
      1. God destroys our enemies (v9), guides and keeps us (v10), and reveals his will to us (v11).
      2. The first step on the road to sin is the rejection of God’s Word (v12).
  • Verses 13-16
    • Original meaning: By withdrawing himself, God will both punish and demonstrate the Israelites unrecognised dependence on him.
    • Timeless principle: Without God, even the most hardened sinner is nothing.

It’s worth noting that there were a few slightly complex exegetical questions on the way. One is whether is the criticism of Judah (‘they have despised the law of God’) materially different from Israel (‘they sell the righteous for silver’), or are these two ways of saying the same thing? Then verses seven and eight are particularly hard to translate. And verse 13 could be translated “I am weighed down by you”, or “I will press you down”. But this was a relatively straightforward exegesis. That’s because I’m preaching on Amos, not Zechariah ;-)

The next stage is to check this exegesis against the commentaries. Other than quickly checking the outlines, I’ve not read the commentaries yet. That’s because taking a shortcut to discovering the meaning and principles is rarely satisfactory. You’ve got to do the spadework yourself. (Having said that, I have read a lot of background to Amos before embarking on this process. This includes sections of Old Testament surveys, introductory material in commentaries, and the appropriate sections of 2 Kings which speak of the period.)

But reading the commentaries is vital for two reasons: (1) To stop me making errors. And (2) To add colour and depth to my fairly rudimentary knowledge. In this case looking through the commentaries didn’t bring anything particularly revealing to light, but they did confirm I was on basically the right track, and they did provide lots of helpful parallels and background which will come in useful later.

Before we leave this section there’s two small tasks to complete. The first is to ask which doctrines are central to this text. As a preacher, I need to be a teacher, and bible passages often given an opportunity for some systematic teaching, if only for a few minutes. But a few minutes in every message quickly provide a pretty good grounding in systematic theology for the whole congregation. I usually start by doing a Logos search through my Systematic Theologies to see if they cite the verses I’m preaching on. Unfortunately, in this case, few do. But looking through the original meaning and timeless principles, it’s pretty clear that the main doctrines are hamartiology (I’ve been waiting eight years to use that word! – it means the doctrine of sin. I promise I won’t use it again ;-) ) and judgement. I’ll look to include a brief overview of at least one of these doctrines in my sermon.

The second is to see if the passage is quoted from or alluded to in the New Testament. I’ll use the indexes in my UBS4 Greek New Testament, and Carson and Beale’s Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. In this case neither search reveals anything of substance.

Digest

Next, I ensure that the message of the passage as got home to me. This is obviously a very personal process, so there’s not much I can write about it. But in essence it means praying the message home, and considering the application to me. It means examining my own heart and responding to the text – through praise, repentance, or often both! Here’s a flavour of the questions I asked myself for this passage:

  • Am I in danger of God’s judgement? (2:4a)
  • In what ways do I despise the law of God? (2:4b-5)
  • Am I guilty of sinning against my brothers and sisters? (2:6-8)
  • Do I blaspheme God through my subtle rejection of his law? (2:6-8, 12)
  • Have I forgotten God’s great grace to me? (2:9-11)
  • Do I believe (or act as though I believe) I can manage without God? (2:13-16)

This process has a major impact on the shape and approach of the sermon.

Disseminate

The final task is to actually write the sermon. The first thing I do is re-write my outline in a way which gives clear points for the congregation, and clear direction for me. The revised outline gets written in two stages. The first is just to write it in very short headings with an eye on the timeless principles. This turned out as:

  • Rejecting the truth leads to certain judgement
  • Rejecting the truth leads to sins against people
  • Rejecting the truth leads to a rejection of God
  • Rejecting the truth leads to total loss

You can see that the common theme has quite naturally become “rejecting the truth”. Earlier I said the main point of the passage is “God will judge his own people”. But that’s OK. Rejecting the truth is explicitly taught in sections one and three (2:4 and 2:12), and implicitly taught throughout the second section (2:6-8). Upon reflection we can see that the main point is actually “God will judge his own people if they reject the truth”. But I think it better to focus on the reasons for judgement rather than the fact of judgement. That’s because the reasons assume the fact, whilst the reverse isn’t true.

Having written this outline I then look to make it a little more memorable. I like alliteration (how did you guess?) so I make good use of Visual Thesaurus and the thesaurus in Microsoft Word. I also have an electronic edition of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. This allows me (for example) to display a list of all verbs beginning with “di”. Very handy! the NSOED also allows searching by rhymes, which I also sometimes use. This particular outline is pretty memorable already, but the next version is even better, I think:

  • Rejecting God’s truth brings retribution (4-5)
  • Rejecting God’s truth brings ruthlessness (6-8)
  • Rejecting God’s truth brings rejection (9-12)
  • Rejecting God’s truth brings ruin (13-16)

“God’s truth” rather than “the truth”, helps keep the focus on God where it belongs. “Brings” is simply shorter than “leads to”. The other changes just create a memorable pattern and make the headings even shorter. I’m not quite happy with “ruthlessness”, I’d prefer “inhumanity”. But it’s good enough. (You always need to strike a balance between accuracy and memorability. I always err on the side of accuracy, and am happy that ruthlessness is an accurate description of 6-8.)  I like the double meaning of rejection in the third point: rejection brings rejection – it’s very biblical. Rejection of God words = Rejection of God = God’s rejection of us.

It’s worth comparing this with the very first outline I came up with, shown above:

  • Judah punished for the rejection of the law (4-5)
  • Israel punished for hypocritical sin (6-8)
  • Israel reminded God gave them strength (9-12)
  • God will therefore put them down (13-16)

That first outline was not wrong, but hopefully you can see the improvement! The important thing is that the first outline was merely descriptive, whereas the final outline gives much more thought to the principles and application. Comparing those two outlines illustrates the job a preacher – to get from one to the other.

So now we can finally get down to writing. I need to keep my sermons under 45 minutes otherwise they quickly get boring. So I aim for 40 minutes. I’ll reserve 5 minutes for an introduction and conclusion, which leaves me with 35 minutes for four points. Within each point I need teaching, illustration and application. I find this works best split roughtly 40/20/40, though don’t think for a minute that I actually stick to this as I’m writing! But I mention it because if you have four points, the teaching for each point is just 3½ minutes (approximately 450 words or four paragraphs). It’s very quickly filled. So I need to make sure my sermon is focussed on what really matters and I don’t get distracted by interesting asides. The teaching must state clearly what the Bible says. The illustrations must serve either the application or the teaching point, and the application must apply what has been taught, not just what I feel strongly about.

So, after a few more hours, the sermon is complete. The whole process (if I hadn’t been writing a blog post as I went along) would have taken about eight hours. That’s about right for me, but I know some work quicker, others slower. The finished version is available below. I’ll put up an audio recording as soon as I have it.

In the end, my points changed midway through the sermon. I wasn’t happy with “Rejecting God’s truth brings rejection” – the play on words might have been clever, but it wasn’t clear. In preaching, clarity is always more important than cleverness. I also wasn’t happy that in the earlier outline the first and fourth points described what God would do (bring retribution and ruin), and the second and third what they would do (be ruthless and reject God). This wasn’t clear from the outline. I’d also never been totally happy with “Rejecting God’s truth brings ruthlessness”, preferring ‘inhumanity’. So I started to look for words that would fit well with “inhumanity”. This is what I came up with:

  • Rejecting God’s Word brings iniquity (4-5)
  • Rejecting God’s Word brings inhumanity (6-8)
  • Rejecting God’s Word brings infidelity (9-12)
  • Rejecting God’s Word brings incapacity (13-16)

This is better again, I think. The application in the sermon developed in a way that I did not expect. The major points of application (one for each point of the sermon) were:

  • The importance of evangelism: The stemmed very naturally over an assertion that the great iniquity of the Judaeans was that they didn’t treat God as God. One way we don’t treat God as God is our apparent happiness for him to be a secondary God who is only Lord over some, and our apparent refusal to obey the great commission.
  • The importance of holiness: If rejecting God’s Word brings inhumanity, then a changed, holy life is a vital sign of genuine belief.
  • The importance of biblical faithfulness: If rejecting God’s Word brings all this, we must re-double our efforts to remain biblically faithful.
  • The danger of continued rebellion: If we are rejecting God’s Word, our lives are dependent on the patience of God. But His patience will not last forever.

I’ve not preached the sermon yet, but it’s as finished as I can make it. It certainly isn’t a model message (in particular it needs more illustration) but today, at least, it is the best I can do. Posting this has helped me to think how I can better prepare faithful, biblical expositions. I hope it does the same for others.

  Sermon on Amos 2 (166.5 KiB, 2,170 hits)

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Comments

  1. Robert Harris says:

    I would like to do that because iam still writing my sermons out on paper and this would really help me with time to do other pastoral duties . Thanks please help.

  2. Evangelist Carolyn says:

    this info was great it helped me a lot thanks so much. the word of God was poweful.

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