Imagine you’re sitting in the church at Rome in the 1st century. You hear a knock on the door. In walks a messenger with a scroll from the Apostle Paul. An elder opens the scroll and reads Rom. 1:1-4, then stops, and preaches for 45 minutes. Finally, he concludes by saying, “We’ll read and study the next few verses next week.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Can you really picture the early church preaching from short passages like that? I think the elders probably read and commented on the whole letter in one message. (In following weeks, they probably also reminded the church of specific passages.)
Here’s something to think about…How many sermons did Jesus take to preach the Sermon on the Mount? (Matt. 5-7). The Upper Room Discourse? (John 13-17). The Olivet Discourse? (Matt. 24-25). He preached those messages in only one sermon each. Then, why do most expository preachers today divide those single sermons into dozens of sermons?
This quote sums-up well the need for Big Picture Preaching…
“Show How the Text Connects to the Rest of Scripture. One of the biggest problems with preaching today is that the individual texts are often divorced from the whole of Scripture. While we do not neglect the details (e.g., word studies, grammar, syntax, historical setting, individual texts), we must be sure to show how the Bible fits together. The Bible is a story with many books; thus, we must be careful to show how these books and stories all fit together. Richard Lints has listed some helpful steps for examining particular texts within the larger context of Scripture. I would also suggest preparing sermons on larger portions of Scripture, rather than one or two verses. How can we possibly see the big picture if we miss the forest for the trees? The Bible did not come to us in chapters or individual verses, but as whole books. For some reason many pastors think they are treating the text вЂњin-depthвЂќ when they spend five years preaching through the book of Matthew or spending five weeks on two verses. I think we should get people to see the big picture by preaching larger portions of Scripture, which will also allow us to get to other books of the Bible during our ministry. I am not suggesting to ignore the details of the text, but simply understand that the Bible is a book of literature and should be read and taught as such (as a book or a whole).” (Chad Knudson, Developing a Biblical-Theological Sermon, The Road to Emmaus blog, 2007.)
Also, The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology warns of overly-detailed, word-by-word expository preaching…
- “Dangers to be avoided…Slow motion biblical theology. Sometimes a preacher preaches a complete sermon on every word of a text, including a complete biblical theology of each word drawn from all its occurrences in Scripture. To do this is to lose the movement and particularity of the text, so that it becomes a peg on which to hang a series of theological sermons. Each word is used as an exercise in biblical theology. William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour exemplifies this approach.” (P.J.H. Adam, ‘Preaching and Biblical Theology,’ in T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy: editors, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 2000.)
Expository preachers have different views of how much detail to include in their sermons…
To Include in Expository Preaching
The goal of this blog is to explain why the 4th style, theme-by-theme, expository preaching, should help disciples grow faster. This style may be described by any of the following 3 names…
1. Big Picture Preaching
2. Theme-by-Theme Expository Preaching
3. Expository Preaching From Long Passages
Theme-by-theme, expository preaching should not be confused with most seeker-sensitive style, topical preaching today. Most topical preachers compromise and edit the so-called “negative” parts of God’s Word because they fear men, since they aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit’s boldness. And, they often misinterpret verses by extracting them from their contexts. However, theme-by-theme, expository preaching teaches the whole Bible from beginning to end, with these 5 goals…
1. Explain: What is the text’s context in relation to the whole passage, whole book, and whole Bible (redemptive-historical)?
2. Interpret: What is the meaning of the text?
3. Identify: What are the main theme(s) and sub-theme(s)?
4. Emphasize: Focus on the main theme(s) more than the minor details.
5. Apply: How should we then live?
God has not explicitly spoken about what length of passages we should preach. There are no right and wrong here, but there are better and best. Although I lack any “Thus saith the Lord,” I’m going to try using some common sense to persuade you to try “Big Picture Preaching.”
Before we see the advantages of this style of preaching, let’s answer 3 popular objections against preaching from long passages, instead of short passages…
Instead of Short Passages
1. “But, verse-by-verse preaching is more in-depth and less shallow, and it contains more meat and less milk.”
Frankly, I find it far more in-depth to grasp God’s unifying, redemptive-historical themes from Genesis – Revelation, like creation – new creation, sin, covenants, salvation, kingdom, temple, rest, etc. And, the milk-meat distinction in Hebrews 5:12ff has nothing to do with explaining every verse. It refers to advancing from basic doctrinal truths like repentance, faith, baptism, etc. to mature truths like apostasy-perseverance.
2. “But, we need extra time to explain the historical-cultural context of the Bible.”
Granted, sometimes we need to reconstruct the historical-cultural context for our listeners. However, do we really need 34 sermons to reconstruct the 1st century, historical-cultural context of the Sermon on the Mount?
3. “But, some literary genres (like teaching passages in Romans) require more time to explain than others (like historical narratives in Joshua.)
True, but do we really need 5 years to explain Romans?
I’ve yet to see any good reason why most expository preachers prefer short passages, instead of long passages. OK, now here are 3 advantages to preaching from long passages, instead of short passages…
Instead of Short Passages
1. Preaching Longer Passages Helps Disciples Understand More Truths Sooner
Has your church ever lost members who moved out of your area? If so, how many preaching series did they hear before leaving? Only one, a few?
Which disciples do you think will mature sooner? Those who hear…
A. One series for 5-years in Romans?
B. Twelve series in 5 years in John, Matthew, Acts, 1 John, Genesis, Hebrews, Romans, and 1 Thes.-2 Thes., and 1 Tim.-Titus?
Remember, Jesus invested 3+ years discipling His apostles. If He were on earth today, can you imagine Him discipling them with 3 years in Romans only? Of course not. He taught them numerous topics during that 3 years: What to believe, how to love God foremost, how to trust God, how to pray, how to evangelize, how to love people, how to talk with people, etc.
2. Preaching Longer Passages Motivates Hearers to Obey by Preserving the Doctrinal Context of the Commands
Most of the commands (imperatives) in the New Testament are given in the context of indicative, doctrinal truths. (Incidentally, that’s why “those who learn little doctrine, grow little.”)
It’s OK to discuss the commands alone for the purpose of defining a theological question in occasional topical preaching. (For instance, the topic, “Which commands must we obey?” is a valid question.) But, for long-term, weekly preaching, preach the commands in their doctrinal contexts.
For example, it’s easier to present our bodies as living sacrifices of worship (Rom. 12-16) when we first understand the gospel of salvation (Rom. 1-11). And, it’s not burdensome to walk worthy of our calling when “every spiritual blessing in Christ” is fresh in our minds (Eph. 1-3.). Also, when we see how we’re raised with Christ (Col. 2:10 – 3:1) we’re motivated to put off anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (Col. 3:8. Burdensome preachers might divide Col. 3:8 into 5 separate sermons, one on each sin.)
3. Preaching Longer Passages Helps Hearers See the Big Picture by Emphasizing the Major Theme(s) Above the Minor Parts
I once read a pastor’s preaching schedule to preach through Romans in ~5 years. I thought to myself, “Talk about missing the forest for the trees!” Maybe that’s how he learned to preach in seminary. But, is that how Christ taught his apostles to preach?
Don Carson warns of preachers missing the forest for the trees (at least in the narratives of the 4 gospels,)
“The best of Western seminaries and theological colleges reinforce the cultural bent toward the abstract, and fill students’ heads with the importance of grammatical, lexicographical exegesis. Such exegesis is, of course, of enormous importance. But in students who do not have a feel for literature, it can have the unwitting effect of so focusing on the tree, indeed on the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left, that the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge. The antidote is to direct attention to the narrative…” (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, 1991, pp. 100-101.)
Carson also advises preaching from longer texts (at least in the gospel of John,)
“The second suggestion is to select a fairly large unit of text as the basis for each sermon. If a preacher takes six weeks to expound the Prologue (1:1-18), and is actually saying anything that has much content, almost inevitably a great deal of later material in John has been dragged in. Far better to deliver one’s soul on the Prologue in one sermon, complete ch. 1 the next week, and proceed at a good pace through the text so that while the slower preacher is polishing closing remarks on 1:51 you are already well into the farewell discourse.” (Carson, op. cit., p. 102)
Instead of spending 5 years in Romans, why can’t we learn the whole book in ~8 messages, something like this?…
Week 1. Intro., Main Theme: The Gospel of Salvation,
Sub-Theme: Righteousness by Faith (1:1-17)
Week 2. Condemned: God’s Righteousness Needed by All Humans (1:18 – 3:20)
Week 3. Justified: God Righteousness Credited by Faith in Christ (3:21 – 5:21)
Week 4. Sanctified: God’s Righteousness Progressing in Us (6:1 – 8:15)
Week 5. Glorified: God’s Righteousness Completed – Our Assurance (8:16-39)
Week 6. Glorified: God’s Righteousness Completed – Israel’s Future and Christ’s Return (9:1 – 11:36)
Week 7. God’s Righteousness Applied in the Church and World (12:1 – 15:13)
Week 8. Conclusion (15:14 – 16:27)
I really enjoy seeing the “big picture.” There’s something awe-inspiring about understanding how each passage relates to the overview of the whole book and the whole Bible. I’d like to hear a preacher develop the theme of Romans as “the gospel of God’s saving righteousness” (Rom. 1:16-17) then relate it back to every passage in future weeks. It’s helpful to hear reviews every week to remind us of the book’s theme.
Here’s a typical, verse-by-verse, expository preaching outline for the Sermon on the Mount divided into 34 sermons…
Week 1. Intro., Main Theme: God’s Righteous Kingdom
Week 2. Spiritual Poverty (5:3)
Week 3. Mourning (5:4)
Week 4. Meekness (5:5)
Week 5. Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness (5:6)
Week 6. Merciful (5:7)
Week 7. Purity in Heart (5:8)
Week 8. Peacemaking (5:9)
Week 9. Persecution (5:10-12)
Week 10. The Salt of the Earth, and Light of the World (5:13-16)
Week 11. The Law and Prophets Fulfilled, Not Destroyed (5:17-20)
Week 12. Murder and Anger (5:21-26)
Week 13: Adultery (5:27-30)
Week 14. Divorce (5:31-32)
Week 15. Oaths (5:33-37)
Week 16. Vengeance (5:38-42)
Week 17. Love your Enemies (5:43-48)
Week 18. Giving (6:1-4)
Week 19. Intro. to Prayer (6:5-8)
Week 20. Prayer: Our Father in Heaven (6:9)
Week 21. Prayer: Your Kingdom Come (6:10)
Week 22. Prayer: Give Us Our Daily Bread (6:11)
Week 23. Prayer: Forgive Us Our Debts (6:12, 14-15)
Week 24. Prayer: Do Not Lead Us Into Temptation (6:13)
Week 25. Fasting (6:16-18)
Week 26. Materialism: Your Treasure Follows Your Heart (6:19-21)
Week 27. Materialism: The Eye Is the Lamp of the Body (6:22-23)
Week 28. Materialism: You Cannot Serve God and Money (6:24)
Week 29. Materialism: Do Not Worry (6:25-34)
Week 30. Judging (7:1-6)
Week 31. Perseverance in Prayer (7:7-11)
Week 32. The Golden Rule (7:12)
Week 33. False Prophets (7:13-20)
Week 34. Obedience and Lordship (7:21-29)
Personally, I find that style of preaching rather burdensome and fragmented with it’s micro-focus on the details, instead of the major themes and sub-themes. Notice that by week 34, the main theme (God’s righteous kingdom) was long forgotten 33 weeks ago. Why must we change Christ’s 15-minute sermon into 26 hours of sermons?
Why can’t we communicate the whole message of the Sermon on the Mount in ~6 sermons, something like this?…
Week 1. Intro., Main Theme: God’s Righteous Kingdom, and Character (5:1-16)
Week 2. Scripture in God’s Righteous Kingdom:
The Law and Prophets Fulfilled, Not Destroyed (5:17-48)
Week 3. Sincere Religion in God’s Righteous Kingdom:
Giving, Praying, and Fasting (6:1-18)
Week 4. Material Things in God’s Righteous Kingdom:
God Will Provide, So Don’t Worry (6:19-34)
Week 5. Judging in God’s Righteous Kingdom:
Judging, Praying, and the Golden Rule (7:1-12)
Week 6. Entering God’s Righteous Kingdom:
Beware of False Prophets (7:13-29)
(Or, if a preacher wanted to preach the whole Sermon on the Mount in only one message like Jesus did, I couldn’t fault him.)
One famous preacher who preached from longer passages was the radio preacher J. Vernon McGee. By the way, he had some of the best conversion testimonies I’ve ever heard. It sounded like the Lord was really using him to lead sinners to Christ.
McGee preached through the whole Bible in 5 years, which may be too fast or slow for you. But in general, I think he had the right idea to major on the majors, and minor on the minors. Good preachers identify the text’s main theme, and focus on it more than the peripheral details.
I wonder, where did we get this idea to preach mostly from short passages? Could it be some extra baggage leftover from the Reformers or Puritans? (Perhaps a church historian can answer that question?)
Well, those are just some of my uninspired, personal preferences about preaching.
Can I challenge you? Why not pray and ask the Lord if you should try “Big Picture Preaching,” theme-by-theme through one whole book? Then ask your audience afterward which style they prefer, preaching from short passages or long passages? What have you got to lose? (Also, please share your experience with me.)
“5 Types of Sermons” A chart including verse-quoting, topical, expository, and redemptive-historical sermons.