To Preach a Book: Analyzing

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

I had spent the daylight of one afternoon playing with a friend. We played ball, rode bikes, dug in the dirt, and generally maintained high activity. That evening, he asked me if I had ever seen a certain movie. I told him I hadn’t. Most of my early childhood was spent with a snowy black and white picture on a TV hooked to an antenna atop a tall metal pole beside our house. We picked up three channels and sometimes four in exceptionally good weather. He had a color TV and a VCR.

He pulled a VHS tape from the shelf and put it in the player. I can’t remember the name of the movie. I want to say it had the word “ninja” in it. It was a low budget action flick with a rice paper thin plot that was mostly an excuse to string together a bunch of martial arts fight scenes. I had seen some of the old, overdubbed Kung Fu pictures and always enjoyed the action. I don’t remember much about it, but I’m sure it was every bit as cheesy as it seems it would be.

We began watching, me for the first time and my friend for the nth time. He really liked the movie and had watched it over and over for who knows how long. Seeing it repeatedly had not dulled his enjoyment of it, but it had sharpened his perception of it. As it played, he added bits of commentary. Many of his comments were pointing out discontinuities in the film. At different points in the same scene there would be differences in the actors involved, costumes, props, etc. Of course, I hadn’t noticed it until he pointed it out.

I’m sure he hadn’t sat down with a clipboard and deliberately analyzed this straight to VHS movie. He had watched it so many times he began to notice these problems. I’m sure, after he had noticed a few, he began to look for them more consciously. While I wouldn’t recommend investing time in analyzing low budget actions flicks from the 80s, the act of repeated viewing, or reading in our case, is necessary to analyze any work.

Repetition

Before I am ready to begin working on a passage or a sermon, I have to analyze the book and identify aspects of it that will help me find the overall controlling theme. Repeated readings are necessary, but it helps if I have some idea of what I’m looking for.

I chose the book of Ruth, so I immediately know the biblical genre of the book. It’s an Old Testament book and that means it is one of four main genres—law, history, poetry/wisdom, or prophets. Ruth is a book of history, but what kind of a book of history? I am ready to start reading.

On the first round of readings, I am not deliberately trying to notice anything. I want to read the whole book in one sitting, mainly to get a feel for the story. I may notice something or think of some questions in these readings. If so, I will write it down and go on reading. I’m not ready at this point to start researching and investigating. I first read Ruth in the KJV. I preach from the KJV and it is the translation I have predominantly used and am most familiar with.

I also read the book in other translations. Every reading helps me see the book as a whole. Different translations help me see it differently. The KJV was translated into very early modern English and uses archaic words and idioms. I sometimes assume I know what a word or expression means, when further study shows me I wasn’t right. I read the book of Ruth in the CJB, NASB, ESV, and NIV translations. I may like or dislike what a translation says. I may agree or not, but they are like first order commentaries on the text because they are what various scholars believe the original words to mean. I also read Robert Alter’s translation of Ruth in his collection titled, Strong As Death Is Love.

These readings were helpful in getting the big picture of the book in mind. I didn’t notice anything major among the translations that warranted further study. I’m likely to come across some translational issues as I do the deeper, line level study of the book, but I’m still not there yet. I am now ready for the next step.

Divisions

Earlier, I asked what kind of historical book Ruth is? Several readings confirmed that Ruth is one story and not a collection of stories, like Judges for instance. If I were classifying the book of Judges, I might call it episodic history. All the events in Ruth are connected and interdependent as one leads to the next from the beginning to the end, so Ruth is one story.

I am realizing as I try to describe my process, I am explaining some things I’ve never tried to explain to anyone before. I am using and going to use a bit of shop talk that I will try to explain. We should’ve learned much of this in high school literature class. Maybe we did, but have forgotten it. I may need to spend some time working on terms I use. There are various methods of literary analysis and I’ve noticed a number of terms that are inconsistent among different uses. I will try to explain the terms and the way I am using them as I go.

What do I mean when I say Ruth is a story? I am referring to the form of the book and not whether it is fiction or nonfiction. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defined a story as a narrative that has beginning, middle, and end. He arrived at this conclusion from analyzing ancient stories to his day. He meant that a story is unified and cohesive, leading to a resolution. The beginning starts the story, giving an opening image that gets out of balance in some way and leads to the middle. The middle continues the story as resolution of the imbalance is sought and leads to the end. The end is the resolution where the imbalance is overcome and the closing image of the story is typically a reverse, or mirror image of the opening. Ruth definitely fits this description.

At this point, I need to start dividing up the text of the book. I am not referring to preaching units at this point. I am analyzing the story, so I want to divide the book into the different scenes of the story. A scene is a smaller unit of the larger story. Just as the whole story has beginning, middle, and end, scenes also have beginning, middle, and end. A scene has an opening image and inciting action that causes change leading to a resolution of the scene. I am looking for the smallest unit of the story, which satisfies that description.

I started this process for Ruth by taking the Word document of the AV text of the book and removing all chapter numbers, verse numbers, and spacing. I ended up with a document of the text of the whole book that looks like one long paragraph. You can find that file here. I printed the file on a single sheet of 11×17 paper. In this case, the book is short and I could fit the entire text on the front of an 11×17 sheet.

I took that sheet and read the text over and over and over again. I don’t know how many times, but it was certainly several times. I read and looked for scenes and began marking the text up to identify the scenes and the components that made up the scenes. Here is what that sheet looked like when I was done. You can click on the thumbnail to enlarge it.

I identified six scenes that satisfied the beginning, middle, and end form of story. You will notice the marks and notes I put on that sheet. I will explain those later, but for now I want to talk about finding the controlling theme. During this process, I identified the controlling theme as finding rest, and noted that in the upper right hand margin. I circled the word rest twice in the text. It actually occurs a third time, but I didn’t realize the significance of that third occurrence until later.

In the AV text, the word rest occurs three times (Ruth 1:9; 3:1, 18). Each time, the Hebrew word is different. The two main occurrences (Ruth 1:9; 3:1) capture the concept of rest as what is found in the home of a husband—love, peace, security, abundance of provision, continuing life through children and grandchildren, etc. The ideal of rest is present throughout the entire book and works on the different levels of want and need for the main characters. I will explain more about that later.

I have a lot to work with as I move forward in studying the book. I don’t consider my initial decisions to be final. They will need to be tested and refined as I continue to work through the book. I realize I could open up commentaries and other books on Ruth and get all this already broken down for me. At this point in the study, I haven’t opened any of those books and it will be a while before I am ready for them. First, I need to know what I think and understand about the book before I ever hear what others think about it. Second, you will notice when you read some different commentaries and books that they don’t all agree on how to break a book down or even on what the primary message of the book is. I will refer to other books as a check on my work later, but I’m not ready for that at this point.

Up Next

In the next post, I will write more about the scenes and how I divided those up.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

To Preach a Book: Panicking

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

I have chosen a book to preach through and I have assembled a pile of books and tools to use. I’ve had a host of thoughts go through my mind. I’ve probably thought of a title for the sermon series. I’ve thought about some things I’m going to say in sermons. In other words, this is the really fun part of preaching through a book.

Yes, the fun part is just before you actually start working on preaching through a book. Everything is perfect at this point. I have selected a book. The biblical book is a fixed point. I have some familiarity with it, though I’m probably overestimating how well I know the book. I have a pile of books I haven’t read yet, but I’m confident all the answers to my problems are there in characters on the pages. I just have to fetch them, but that shouldn’t be too hard. I also have blank pages, an empty file, or a blank canvas if you’re feeling artsy. The blankness means endless possibilities and limitless space for a brilliant sermon series.

The Blank Page

Uh oh. The blank page. Writers call it the blank page syndrome. The blank page holds endless possibilities until you actually sit down to write, and then the endlessness of it becomes overwhelming. To preach through a book, those blank pages will have to actually be filled with notes or manuscripts of sermons going section by section through an entire book of the Bible. Where am I going to find time to read all those books and how am I going to sort out inheritance laws, kinsman redemption, and levirate marriage? Does that have something to do with Levites? Why did I pick this book? Maybe I should check the want ads to see who’s hiring and find another line of work.

Maybe you don’t experience those types of panics, but I do and quite frequently. In the process of putting together nearly every sermon I preach, there is a point where I think I cannot do this and I am tempted to just preach a topical sermon, or pull an old one from the file. I feel I am in the center of a terrible maelstrom with all these pieces whirling around and I can’t manage to pull them together. I don’t go to the old file, but I experience the tempting thought more often than I wish was true. Maybe that was too honest.

A Line Anywhere

The answer at this point is to keep praying and keep working. When I’m overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, how do I keep working? I need something to work on.

I read about an artist who had a particular method for overcoming the blank canvas syndrome. The artist would simply make a mark or line, in any shape or direction, anywhere on the canvas. That mark might become a tree, mountain, shoreline, or something else entirely. What it ended up being in the painting did not matter. What did matter was the mark now gave the painter something to work with and took away the blankness of the canvas. That’s what I need—a line anywhere to give me something to work with.

I will explain what I mean in a minute. First, the illustration I just used provides us with a bonus lesson. I read that in a book sometime in the last two years. It came back to me as I was thinking over this post. I remember reading it, but I can’t remember where. I can’t remember if it was a well-known artist or someone the author knew. Maybe it wasn’t actually a real person, but a story to simply make a point. I don’t know, because I can’t remember.

I remember reading it, but I don’t remember thinking anything special about it at the time. I was thinking about how I get started preaching a book and how I could best describe that to you, and out of the leaf-mold this story came. That’s just how my mind works. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” That’s a great quote my mind offered me in this search, but Chesterton wasn’t talking about the same thing. I searched through the books I have read in the last couple of years and could not find it. I searched the internet for too long and couldn’t find it. If you recognize it and know where it came from, please let me know. I will continue to try to find it, but I may never come across it again. So, the lesson here is don’t trust your memory. You’re going to be reading and thinking a lot about the book you’re preaching through. You’re going to come across little bits and pieces of insight. You need to write it down somewhere. If it is tied to a particular verse or passage, the Scripture Journal I mentioned in the last post is a great place to make a note.

Back to the original train: How do I make a line anywhere to start preaching through a book? I have to have something to work with in order to keep working. The first thing I need is the big picture of the book, and, more specifically, the big idea of the book. Sometimes we call the big idea of a book the theme of the book. Theme is a perfectly fine term, but it can be confusing because theme can refer to the primary message of the book, or refer to recurring ideas within the book. You have the theme and a theme, or themes. See how this can get confusing?

Any repeated idea or teaching in a book is a theme. What I have to find is the dominant theme, or major theme. This theme is sometimes referred to as the controlling theme or unifying theme. Those are good terms because they highlight the fact that a book is written with one main, overarching theme, and that theme controls or unifies all lesser themes. Lesser themes serve the main theme. Identifying the controlling theme gives you the key to interpret the book. When I am looking at an individual section in a book and wondering why it is there, or why it is written the way it is, I know the controlling theme is the answer. Every section contributes to the controlling or unifying theme, whether directly or indirectly.

At this point in the process, I usually have an idea what the controlling theme of a book is. That is perfectly fine. Write it down. I now have a line anywhere. I also have to remember that line may end up being a mountain or a tree or something else entirely. I don’t want to force the book to conform to my initial idea. I want to conform my idea and refine it so it’s shaped accurately by the book. Sometimes what I start out thinking is the theme turns out to be a theme, or something else in the book, or I may just be wrong. This is the starting place for the work of preaching through a book. Identifying the controlling theme is the first objective.

Up Next

Identifying the controlling theme is where the work starts to preach through a book. How do I identify the unifying, controlling theme? I will start on that in the next post.

This post is part of a series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

To Preach a Book: Preparing

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

Somewhere along the way, the American consumer has been sold on buying furniture requiring assembly. That used to mean really cheap furniture and an afternoon of toil to have a bookshelf or cabinet. It seems the price tags on those pieces have increased and we still have to assemble them ourselves. Next thing you know, we will be scanning and bagging our own groceries at the store.

Most of the instructions that come with the flat pieces and little bags of hardware advise the assembler to first layout and identify all the pieces to ensure you have everything you need. We never do that, of course. We dive in and put it together halfway and then realize we’ve got it wrong, or that we are missing something. I’ve done it before and will probably do it again.

Selecting the book I’m going to preach through is the crucial first step, but I’m still not ready to start studying the text and preparing sermons. I like to follow the assembly instructions and make sure I have all the bits and pieces I’m going to need to get through this book from beginning to end. I’m trying to make this list as complete as I can.

Over time, I have gathered a library and have a number of resources I go to repeatedly. Some of these are hard copies and some are digital. I will not get to all of them over the course of the study. Some I will read very little and some will be read entirely when preaching through a book. I like to have more available than I’m going to need and you never know when you may come across something requiring a great deal of study and you want to have the best resources available you can.

Books

Books are the preacher’s business. Ebooks have their benefits and uses, as do hard copies. I have and use some of both. Some books are also part of Bible study apps. I will talk about these technologies later, which have more to do with utilization. Here I am more concerned with the content of books. I want to layout books in several different categories to help in preaching through a book of the Bible.

Study Bibles
I have a large number of study Bibles, so this is a good place to provide a disclaimer that holds good for the rest of the lists. I am not going to list every book I own, but rather those I am most likely to use, whether seldom or frequently, in the course of this study. I may end up using a book while studying Ruth that I did not anticipate and so it is not on the list. If that happens, the book will most likely be mentioned in a later post.

Study Bibles typically have articles or notes on the text of the book, an outline of the book, and an introduction to the book noting author, date, themes, etc. Study Bibles can be general or have some focused perspective, e.g., biblical theology. I like to have a range of these. I mostly use these for the book introductions. Here are the study Bibles for Ruth, in no particular order.

The MacArthur Study Bible
A general study Bible with brief notes on the text and good book introductions.

The Complete Jewish Study Bible
A study Bible which focuses on Jewish custom and tradition.

The Gospel Transformation Study Bible
A study Bible that focuses on the gospel in each book of the Bible.

The Biblical Theology Study Bible
A study Bible focusing on the biblical theology of the books that connects to the overarching redemptive story of Scripture as a whole.

The Literary Study Bible
A study Bible focusing on literary analysis of the Bible books, which includes information on genre, literary motifs, rhetorical devices, and contribution to the master story of the Bible.

The NET Bible Full Notes
A Bible with extensive translation notes, including translation decisions, meaning, and usage.

Commentaries
Commentaries vary widely in their format, style, and depth, and, therefore, their usefulness. I haven’t found much help from commentaries that are mostly formatted sermon manuscripts. Commentaries are not infallible, but I use commentaries to help check my work.

Expositional commentaries can be helpful is discerning if I have captured the main point of a passage, or if I have missed something important. I use exegetical commentaries to check for information on original languages, nuance of meanings, or translational issues that may need further investigation. I refer to theological commentaries to check for themes in a passage and connections with other texts and themes. I use literary commentaries to check on genre specific structures, motifs, and themes. I use practical commentaries to check applications and bridges from the text to today.

There is no one commentary that does it all, but often a single commentary will actually cover several of those areas. Of course, I want to work through these issues with the passage for myself before referring to commentaries to help check my work. Here are the commentaries I have laid out for Ruth, in no particular order.

The Story of God Bible Commentary—Ruth and Esther
If you follow the link, you will notice this volume is not available yet, so I don’t have it. I include it because I would definitely have it and use it if it were available. I have some of these commentaries and really like what I have used so far. The commentary focuses on overarching redemptive history and placing books and their passages within that framework.

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary—Ruth
I have used other commentaries in this series and found them helpful. I was surprised by how extensive this commentary is on Ruth. The single volume is around 300 pages. This commentary covers literary structure, language, themes, theology, and application.

New American Commentary—Judges, Ruth
I haven’t used any commentaries from this series yet. This was written by Daniel Block, who also wrote the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary above. The NAC is laid out quite differently from the ZEC and seems to have a different focus. I’m not sure how much I will use it, but it’s available.

Teach the Text Commentary—Judges and Ruth
I haven’t used any of this series before now. This commentary focuses on big picture themes and ideas in the text and presents historical and cultural background information. It also includes sections for each unit in the book on teaching and illustrating the text.

The NIV Application Commentary—Judges, Ruth
I have used other volumes in this series and really like these commentaries. It is a good blend of exposition, literary, and theological commentary. Each section ends with application and bridging contexts.

The MacArthur Bible Commentary
This is a single volume commentary of the whole Bible. It doesn’t necessarily have comments on every verse. The comments are brief and useful.

New Bible Commentary
This is another single volume commentary on the whole Bible. It doesn’t go verse by verse, but rather section by section. The comments are brief but helpful.

Dictionaries
General Bible dictionaries can be handy for looking up names, places, and terms. I have a bunch of them and most of them are in the Bible study apps I use. I’m not going to list them individually, but if I refer to one and find it useful, I will mention that in a later post. I also use language dictionaries for help with the original languages. Here are those that I have laid out for Ruth.

Strong’s Concordance & Vines Expository Dictionary
These are usually readily available for free in various digital formats. Strong’s give root definitions and Vine’s gives definitions and distinguishes for usage.

Brown Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon
Lexical definitions and usage information.

Englishman’s Hebrew Concordance of the Old Testament
This is keyed to the Strong’s numbers and shows every verse where the Hebrew word occurs, regardless of how it is translated.

Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
More up to date than Strong’s.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
Articles explaining the meaning and usage of different words.

The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament
This was originally published in a five volume set. It is a more up to date lexicon, which also covers the Aramaic. It has in-depth articles on meaning and usage.

Overviews
These are books that are treatments of the biblical book as a whole. This would include book introductions. I use these most in the early part of the study. Here are the books I have laid out for Ruth.

The MacArthur Bible Handbook
This is a book by book survey of the whole Bible that gives an introduction and overview of each book in a few pages. It is concise but typically covers the author, date of writing, background, setting, historical and theological themes, a section on the Christology of the book, an outline, and ends with answering a number of challenging questions about the book.

Old Testament Survey
This is a book by book survey with literary and narrative analysis and a focus on canonical context.

The Message of the Old Testament
This book is sermons preached on each book of the Old Testament. It is a brief introduction and overview of each book. This is a case where printed sermons are helpful. The beginning, after the opening illustration, and ending of the sermons are what I found most helpful. The book focuses on the big picture and is also helpful on practical applications of the book as a whole.

Theologies
These are books that generally do not provide verse by verse commentary but focus more on the theology taught in the book, whether systematic or biblical. Sometimes they are laid out to go section by section and sometime they are laid out to go more topically in a thematic arrangement. I tend to use these more in the early part of the study. Here are the books I have laid out for Ruth.

The Theology of the Book of Ruth
This book focuses on certain words and themes to connect Ruth with other historical narratives and reveal the theological message of the book.

From Famine to Fullness
This book focuses on the Gospel and Gospel implications in the book through focusing on major themes in the book of Ruth.

Unceasing Kindness
This is a biblical theology treatment of Ruth. It seeks to read Ruth in the wider context of Scripture and trace big picture themes such as redemption, famine, and covenant kindness (hesed).

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment
This books go through each book of the Bible and focuses on the biblical theology of the books, which connects them together in the overarching story of the Bible.

He Will Reign Forever
This book goes through the Bible from beginning to end to trace the theme of Christ’s kingdom. Some books are covered in greater detail than others.

Special Issues
Each book of the Bible has special issues attached to it. These may be controversial issues, cultural issues, theological issues, etc. If you dig much into resources for the book of Ruth, you will find issues such as postmodern interpretations of the book as a feminist or minority/foreigner polemic. Our own ministry context will help us discern how much we need to speak to such issues.

There are perennial issues we do need to study. The book of Ruth is a part of the history of Israel and particularly during the period of the judges. Aspects of Old Covenant law are crucial to the book, such as the law of redemption, levirate marriage, inheritance, and gleaning. These are important issues in the book and though they will probably be touched on in the commentaries and such, they will probably require further study. Here are the books I have laid out for Ruth.

Leviticus
Commentary on Leviticus with helpful comments on the law.

Deuteronomy
Commentary on Deuteronomy with helpful explanations of the law.

Institutes of Biblical Law
Three volume work on the Old Covenant law more extensive than the commentaries. Rushdoony was a scholar and he was also a covenant theologian and postmill reconstructionist. His explanations of the law in its original context are clear and helpful, but you obviously need to be careful with his contemporary application.

Digital Tools

If you are a young preacher and not computer literate, you need to invest the time to get literate. Digital tools save time and help organize your study. They can also help to build an easily searchable library of your own work for future use. I started out by hand but quickly transitioned to digital and am only glad I did. Today we have various devices and can have apps that sync across all those devices. I realize technologies can present their own problems, but if we discipline ourselves to use them well, they can be a tremendous blessing

I use a Kindle reader as well as the Kindle app on my phone and computer. You can truly have a library in your pocket and with you all the time. The portability means you can read in those little snatches of time while you’re waiting on the doctor or your wife, or something else. You can highlight and make notes in the app and have them sync across all devices. I always have the Kindle app open on my computer when I am studying. The app also gives you the ability to search the text of the books. The vast majority of books I have on Kindle were either free or less than $3.

I use three different Bible apps for studying. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I primarily use Olive Tree with numerous resources I’ve added through the years when they were on a good sale. I use e-Sword with a host of free resources I download from the web. I also use Logos, but that is mainly for commentaries and books I got for free for the app. All those apps can be downloaded for free and come with varying free resources.

I use Microsoft Office apps and have for many years. There are alternatives out there, but I haven’t used very many of them. I use Excel spreadsheets for making charts and otherwise organizing information. I don’t use Word a whole lot, but I probably like outlining on Word the best.

I also use Evernote, which has a host of capabilities I don’t use. I primarily use this app to clip articles from the web I want to save. The app syncs across all devices and is very handy.

My primary sermon writing app is Scrivener. This app was developed first as a novel writing app, but it has expanded through the years to be useful for any sort of long form writing. In the app you can create documents and drag and drop them to rearrange them how you want. The app has a research folder for storing notes, articles, outlines, or whatever you want. You can also attach notes to a document that stay with it but don’t print out unless you choose to do so. All my digital papers are in one place in this app. I have a project entitled Ruth. I have various study notes and relevant documents in there along with my sermon notes I will print and take to the pulpit. Everything for Ruth is there in one app. It has a word processor, but it is much more than a word processor. It does have a fairly steep learning curve, but I have considered it well worth the time.

Analog Tools

For all my commending of technology, I still work with analog tools to accomplish my study. I use a blend of both. For marking up, scratching down notes, and so on I find nothing beats a pencil and paper. A lot of what ends up in the digital documents I produce during the course of studying a book starts out as furious markings and scribblings on paper closely approximating the copywork of a pre-kindergartener.

I have been using Scripture Journals for a while in the study of books I’m preaching. These journals are 5.75×8 with a lay-flat binding and flexible card stock covers. One page has the biblical text and the facing page is a ruled blank page for notes. There is also marginal space on the text pages for notes as well. As I study a book, I will use this journal through the whole process. I will underline, circle, bracket, draw arrows, and write notes during the whole process. These are very handy for keeping notes in one place that is tied to specific verses. As I read books or commentaries, I will make notes. As I study the passage I’m going to preach, I will make notes. These journals have become indispensable to me and an improvement over my old system of printed or copied Bible pages for this purpose.

I still use printable Bible pages, but for a different purpose than I use those journals. I have a printable Word document for each book of the Bible. You can find the one for Ruth here. That document will actually be my starting point, which we will get to in another post. Sermon Audio also offers PDF files of their Paperback Bible you can download and print. It is a similar layout as the Scripture Journal, but it is loose-leaf. The biblical text is on the facing pages and there is a wide outside margin that is ruled for notes. You can find those here.

Last of all, I need pens, pencils, highlighters, and paper. This is a long post, so I will make this short. You need to find what is serviceable for you and cheap. You want to avoid preciousness, because you actually need to use these supplies. You can spend a lot of money for fancy pens and paper, but those resources have so much preciousness that you don’t want to waste them and you’re inhibited from the free marking you need to do. If you’re going to write full sermon manuscripts by hand, then you need better pens and paper. If you’re going to think on paper, mark, and scribble, you need cheap stuff that works.

Up Next

In the next post, I will get to the actual beginning of the study to preach through a book.

This post is part of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

To Preach a Book: Selecting a Book

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

Welcome to a new series on ShortPosts.com, To Preach a Book. I primarily preach verse by verse through entire books of the Bible. This is sometimes referred to as sequential exposition. For my next book, I’m going to write about the process from start to finish. You will be able to follow along step by step. I am not suggesting this is the way to preach through a book, but merely sharing my way. I’m not suggesting anyone copy me. Feel free to take away whatever you find useful.

Where to Start?

The first decision you have to make is what book you’re going to preach. It shouldn’t need to be said, but you can’t decide that on Saturday before you’re going to start the series on the next day, Sunday. I am usually thinking ahead to a couple of books I want to preach, and I usually have a topical series or two in mind for the road ahead as well. When I draw closer to the end of my current series, I settle on the book and will start to do some preliminary work. I will describe the preliminary work later, but now I am focusing on book selection.

I do have a few self-imposed guidelines in place that help narrow down the list of potential books. I tend to preach in an alternating pattern. I alternate between Old and New Testament books. I alternate between different biblical genres of books. I also like to alternate between long and short books. I do this for variety to help the hearers, but also to be consistently preaching God’s truth from different parts of the Bible he has given us. This is part of what it means to preach the whole counsel of God. These are guidelines for me and not inviolable rules. If I do break them, I’m going to have a good, deliberate reason to do so.

These guidelines are helpful in choosing the next book, but a few other factors also help the decision. If I discern particular needs in the congregation, I will consider that in picking a book. Those needs could either be urgent needs, or they could be more long-term growth needs. For instance, if you’ve been working or some situation has caused you to go a long time without food or drink, you have an urgent need to eat and drink and your choices are going to tend toward satisfying that immediate need. You may also have some concerns and need to balance your diet in a certain way for your more long-term health. Congregations have those kind of needs in their spiritual diet as well and I’m going to think about that in selecting a book.

I also consider my own needs. I may settle on a book because I personally need a better understanding of something in that book. I may have come across a passage in a book while I was reading or studying something else. Often, while I’m preaching a book, I will come across some reference or connection to another book, and I really want to explore that.

Thinking about your own experience can help you think about your own needs, but also your own limitations. If you’ve never preached through a book verse-by-verse before, you probably don’t want to start with Daniel, Revelation, or Leviticus. Each book of the Bible presents its own challenges, but some are simply longer and more complex than others. The task can be overwhelming, so try to start with a manageable book.

Envelope Please

I chose the book of Ruth. I was preaching through the book of Acts when I settled on Ruth. Acts is New Testament and was a long series. I ended up preaching 86 sermons in Acts from mid-November 2018 to early December 2019. Ruth is Old Testament and will be a shorter series. I did depart from my guidelines in alternating biblical genres in that both Ruth and Acts are historical narrative books, but they are quite different subject matter and otherwise dissimilar books. It also didn’t hurt that I wanted to write this series going through a book and Ruth is more manageable. I didn’t pick the book in order to write this series, rather I am writing this series now since I’m preaching that book.

History

I began my first pastorate in February 2001. The book of Ruth was the first book I preached through verse by verse. I began that series in July 2001, preaching that series on Thursday nights. I preached thirteen messages in the series and finished it in mid-November 2001. Two weeks after finishing Ruth, I began preaching through another book and have continued preaching through books throughout my ministry.

I have all this information because I began keeping records when I started preaching in 1999. I started keeping those in notebooks and eventually moved to a spreadsheet. I would highly recommend keeping a preaching log and records of your ministry. I have uploaded a template of the spreadsheet I made and use. You can find it here.

Why did I start preaching through books, and why did I start with Ruth? I had seen very little preaching verse by verse through books. Most of what I had seen preaching through a book was chapter by chapter, which was more of a topical series through a book. I had seen very little detailed exposition going verse by verse through a whole book. I knew that Milburn Cockrell preached through books sometimes and I knew that Tom Ross did that as well. I had heard some of their sermons on tape. Yes, cassette tapes. I could see how concentrating on a whole book that way was beneficial.

I began pastoring and preaching three times a week. It didn’t take long before I was at my wit’s end. I was banging my head against the wall every week trying to come up with the perfect sermon the church needed. I would think I had come up with it, only to preach it and be disappointed that it seemed to have no effect. Nothing was different the next week. In just a few short months, I was despairing and knew that I could not continue as a pastor. Of course, this was all completely foolish and shows I had no idea what I was doing and was not ready to be pastoring.

I remember those days of despair and seeing Tom Ross at a Bible conference. I would always seize opportunities at those conferences to ask older and wiser preachers questions. I remember asking Tom for advice. His advice was simple, but very helpful. He said, “Just preach the word and love your people, brother.” I haven’t done either of those very well, but it stuck with me.

I was preaching three topical sermons a week. I would preach messages about the church, the Ark of the Covenant, service, God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, the lepers at the gate of Samaria, revival, etc. In other words, I was all over the place and dealing with various subjects superficially with no order or systematic teaching. I thought about what it meant to preach the word. I knew as a pastor I was responsible to preach the word, which meant all the word and nothing but the word. I was responsible to preach the whole counsel of God from Genesis to Revelation. I knew to fulfill the ministry I had received and benefit the congregation, I needed to preach through entire books of the Bible and explain every verse the best I could. I have since seen many benefits of preaching through books and have become more dedicated to it, so that the majority of my preaching today is going verse by verse through entire books.

I don’t remember a lot about why I chose to start with Ruth. It was short and a story I was already a little familiar with. I also had been given a book that had expositional commentary of Ruth by George Lawson and Esther by Alexander Carson. I had been reading that book and can remember being struck by the providence of God in both those books. I may have also been reading Carson’s History of Providence at the same time. So I began preaching through books and I see today it has been the most beneficial practice to my ministry.

Up Next

In the next post, I will talk about getting started and preparing to preach through a book.

This post is part of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

The School for Fantastical Interpretation

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
~ Isaiah 28:10

Limited time offer

Preacher, are you feeling blue? Do your sermons lack a certain spark? Are you preaching, but not wowing the crowds and holding them in awe? Are you passed over for the best spots at the conferences? Do the remarks you get after your sermons feel mostly like sympathy? Well, today is your day.

Announcing: The School for Fantastical Interpretation (TSFFI). We’ve all been there in the pew as the preacher read his text, which seemed to be a straightforward passage with nothing fresh or new in it. However, by the time he finished, the crowd was spellbound and afterward you could hear many exclamations of wonder at how a passage could have been read hundreds of times but those readers never saw what that preacher found in it. How did he do that? Is it a special gift only few are blessed with? Or, is it a skill that any preacher could learn?

You’ve seen a text become clay in the hands of a master sculptor and been amazed at what he could fashion from it. You’ve probably been exasperated after you’ve tried and failed to reproduce his effects. Now, for the first time ever, the curtain is being pulled back and preachers can learn the skills of fantastical interpretation of the Bible. I know the questions you have. How much? How long? And, where do I sign up? Patience, my friend. Remember that Isaiah said, “he that believeth shall not make haste” (Isaiah 28:16). Everything is a hustle and bustle in the world today.

I’m willing to give away for free this preview of TSFFI. This is a sample of the valuable lessons you will receive. While I cannot guarantee individual results, I do guarantee you will be introduced to the tools you need. After that, it’s all up to you. Let’s listen in on a class already in progress. This class is Foundations for Fantastical Interpretation.

Be a Mentee

Extremely rare are the birds that can soar to the greatest heights apart from some help. Before the dove could pluck the olive branch and return to the ark, Noah had to open the window and let it out. Preachers need to learn at the feet of masters, especially when it comes to the skills of fantastical interpretation. Ideally, you will find a living master of the art who will take you as an apprentice and let you in on all his trade secrets. I have to admit this would be a rare opportunity and not one you can count on. What’s the next best option?

You can sit at the masters’ feet in different ways. For one, you need only to identify such a preacher and then listen to his sermons or read his writings repeatedly. After a while, you will pick up some clues as to how he does what he does. Obviously, taking this course will greatly aid you in this pursuit, but you also must not neglect the fantastical interpreters of yesterday. Read their writings and study their methods closely. You can learn much from them. For example, you can read the wealth of writings left behind by A. W. Pink, especially his earlier writings and the Gleanings series. He was peculiarly adept at finding types and figures under every rock and bush. Granted, you cannot expect to equal his effects, but imitation will bring you a long way.

Build Imagination

Many preachers fall into the trap of merely taking the text at what it says, as though the Bible were written to be sufficiently understandable. That is fine if you want to remain among the lower ranks who take the easier road of preaching, but if you want to ascend, you need to fuel your creative fires. For instance, if you assume the tree Elijah sat under merely refers to a particular type of tree with roots, trunk, branches, and leaves, you are not thinking fantastically. You need to let go and let your mind wander and see what you can come up with.

In fact, to stoke your imagination, you need to practice in passages that provide pluckable produce for fantastical interpretation. It’s harder going in some passages than others, so you want to focus on the easier places as you’re starting out. Parables are a productive playground for the imagination. The Old Testament stories and poetry sections are ready made for fantastical interpretation, and just wait until you get to the prophets.

Here’s an exercise to work on and turn in next class. Find a passage in the Bible that mentions something relevant to a wedding. It can be in the Old or New Testament. It can be an historical narrative or a parable or whatever you choose. Think about all the weddings you’ve been to or seen. Don’t be afraid to supplement your knowledge by learning about wedding customs in different cultures and times. Unleash your imagination and see what symbols, types, figures, and representations you can come up with. How many connections to various doctrines can you find?

Be Obsessive

You may struggle with that exercise because you’re not used to thinking that way. You read “stone” in the text and your mind thinks, “stone,” or “rock,” or some igneous mass. Don’t despair. You just need to train your mind in fantastical interpretation. You have to learn to be obsessive over particular points. If you get your mind always thinking about a few things, you will start seeing them everywhere. At first you will be seeing analogies, but stay at it and you will soon be seeing pictures, symbols, and types all over the Bible. The weeds around Jonah’s head will become a crown of thorns. The food and drink David gave the Egyptian in the field will become communion. The widow of Zarephath will become the faithful church in the last days.

You get the idea. Once your mind has been trained to obsess over a few things, you will be able to find proof texts and pictures where people never thought to look. As your skill increases, you will be able to do this in harder and more obscure passages. You will preach to much greater effect.

Build Reinforcement

Care must be taken lest some become skeptical. There are always naysayers who will object to fantastical interpretation. They see it as taking liberties and complain about white spaces and filling in the blanks. Sadly, you will never convince some and you don’t want to expend too much energy on the recalcitrant. It’s better to head off these kinds of objections and build reinforcements into your messages. How do you do that?

Don’t get lost in the pictures and symbols and such. You need to remind people often that you’re preaching the truth and preaching the Bible. A bold choice here is to tell them if they don’t like what you’re preaching, they can take it up with God because you didn’t write the Bible. Remind them fairly often that you are preaching like Isaiah said it must be done: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). It’s extremely important to talk about context often, not the actual context of the passage, but rather saying the word context often. You can change it up at times by referring to people critically who take things out of context.

Optionally, you can occasionally remind them they are hearing good preaching. But I must warn you: that is an extremely difficult move to pull off. Even the most generous crowd can easily interpret that move as self-serving on the part of the preacher. Yes, some few get away with it, but TSFFI thinks it’s best avoided.

Conclusion

Let me break back in now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this generous preview of TSFFI. Your appetite has been whetted. Your curiosity has been piqued. You have questions. How much? How long does it take? Where do I sign up? Friend, can you really put a price on learning skills generally seen only among the elite? Can you really measure time in months or years for acquiring abilities you never before thought possible? As far as signing up, as they say in the show business, stay tuned.

Preaching in the Can

Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear unto all.
~ 1 Timothy 4:15

Absolutely no selling involved …

What if I told you I could tell you how to turn $100 into $310,867.82? You might be suspicious. I assure you it can be done, and is done more often than you think. Yes, it is completely legal and ethical. It doesn’t even involve ocean front property or bridges. It’s actually pretty simple.

Interested? I have two words for you: compound interest. Simply put, compound interest is the way investments grow at an increasing rate. If you invest $100 every month for forty straight years at 8% interest compounded annually, you will have $310,867.82. However, if you bank $100 every month for 40 years in a standard savings account earning 2.25% interest, you will have $77,880.75. That’s a nice little sum. You will have put $48,000 of your own in during that time and received a profit of $29,880.75, but it is considerably less than the investments. If you stuff a Benjamin Franklin every month into a coffee can for forty straight years, you will only have $48,000. Forty-eight large is nothing to sneeze at, but that is a difference of $262,867.82 less than from investing, and that’s the beauty of compound interest. It multiplies your effort.

Preaching Investments

Paul told Timothy that his profit in the ministry should be obvious (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul wasn’t referring to his financial portfolio. Jesus used the pictures of financial investments and profits to portray the gains that should be made in service while we wait for the kingdom in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27). Two servants invested wisely and made a profit (Luke 19:15-19). One servant followed the coffee can plan and offered back the original capital. He was chided for not at least putting the money in a savings account, or CD, and at least earning some return (Luke 19:20-23).

As preachers, our pulpit ministry, and all that is involved in it, is being invested in some way and our gains are made according to the method of investment. If your preaching is a scattershot, random string of one-off sermons, your profit will approximate the profit with the coffee can plan. Over 40 years of preaching, you will have preached a handful of sermons about angels, various sermons on prayer, recurring sermons on tithing and church attendance, some parables, some miracles, a bunch of the life of Bible character sermons, various doctrinal topics, a bunch of repeats, etc. You will have done some good for those you’ve ministered to and will have grown yourself in some small ways over such a length of time.

If your preaching follows a more topical expository method, your profit will be akin to the savings account or high-yield CD. Over 40 years you will have produced a sermon catalog of numerous series of expositions of lengthy passages. You will likely have preached through Genesis chapters 1-3, the ten commandments, the life of David, numerous Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the Upper Room Discourse, some short books like Jonah and some epistles, chapter by chapter through Romans, etc. You will have covered an array of biblical doctrines and preached passages from different genres of Scripture. You will have done good for those you’ve preached to and you will have grown yourself from your studies all those years.

If you are committed to expositional preaching through whole books of the Bible, your profit will be more like the compound interest from smart investing. If you are very disciplined, over 40 years of preaching at least twice every week and covering at least 7.5 verses per sermon, you could actually preach every verse in the Bible. That probably won’t be your approach, but you could certainly preach most of the books of the Bible in that time, as well as topical expository sermons on various doctrines, different series of studies, etc. You will have done much good for those under your ministry and you will have personally grown leaps and bounds in your understanding of Scripture as a whole. Your preaching will grow richer over time and the work you do in one book will pay dividends in other books afterward.

Anyone Can Do It

Do the math with a bunch of twenty-year-olds to show them how $100 can become over $300,000, and you have their attention. It is so simple that many might be skeptical, but they are the youngest and last of the millennials, so skepticism is to be expected along with snarky comments. You explain it really is that simple and assure them that anyone can do it. Compound interest is completely unbiased. But that does raise a question. If it’s so simple and anyone can truly do it, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why doesn’t everyone invest $100 a month for 40 years?

Factors vary from person to person, but we can generalize to four reasons why people don’t save and invest this way.

  1. Inability to think in a long-term perspective. Retirement is so far off and spending $4 every day at Starbucks is so much more enjoyable than brewing coffee at home and putting that $100 a month to work in investments. Besides, all that math is just too hard to figure out. Everybody told me I would never need algebra again after getting out of school anyway.
  2. Laziness. It takes hard work and discipline to do something consistently over such a long time period. The key to compound interest is not magic, but consistency over time. If you double the monthly amount to $200 but only invest it for 20 years, your return will be $109,828.71. That’s a lot of cabbage but less than half with the 40 year plan and only half the monthly amount. It also works the other way for you. If you work harder and are more disciplined to invest $400 a month for 40 years, your egg will be over $1.2 million. Everybody wants a million dollars but very few will be that consistent for that long to get it.
  3. Presuming Social Security and other government programs will be there in the future. Many see no need to deny themselves and work hard to save like that because they believe the government will be there to take care of them.
  4. Assuming they will always be healthy and energetic and able to work until they die. There is no need to plan for the future when the income will always come in from working. Many also assume they will have enough, though they do nothing to ensure that.

What about preaching? I am not here advocating the “one right way of preaching.” I am persuaded from Scripture and experience that the most profitable way of investing your ministry is in the committed exposition of books, just like the most profitable way of investing for retirement is consistently over a long time. Someone may submit Charles Spurgeon as a refutation of my contention, because he didn’t preach that way. Honesty requires me admit that Spurgeon didn’t preach expositionally through books and it’s hard to argue with his profit. If I am allowed a rejoinder, I submit that some people also win a million dollars by playing the lottery, but wisdom recognizes that is not a reasonable retirement plan or expectation.

If that is the most profitable way of pulpit ministry, why aren’t more preachers doing it? Once again, we can generalize to four reasons why preachers don’t preach expositionally through books.

  1. Inability to preach through books. Some who occupy pulpits lack the essential gifts for preaching and teaching in such an orderly and systematic way. I am not referring to those who have the necessary gifting but choose not to preach that way. I am referring to those who are not “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24), as Scripture requires.
  2. Laziness. Preaching expositionally through books is hard work and requires consistent, disciplined study over time to maintain. In short, it ain’t easy. Some preachers simply don’t want to work that hard at preaching. It’s easier to preach in the can and rehash old sermons, come up with three points of what you want to say and then find a verse for it, build a straw man you can burn up, etc.
  3. Presuming in the preacher’s authority. A preacher is given a deal of respect and credibility for occupying the pulpit. The preacher can trade on that by presuming his words carry the necessary authority for the people to believe him. They ought to believe it because I said it and I always preach the truth. They might also presume upon a legacy or tradition that preceded them.
  4. Assuming their congregation knows the Bible better than they really do. When a preacher assumes his people really know the Bible, he sees no need to do the hard work of exposition. He thinks he can merely read a text and make truth statements without actually showing how the text makes that truth statement. Even if the preacher’s statements are true, that’s not exposition. Exposition is simply exposing the meaning of the text. Exposition is explaining the meaning of the passage in its original context and then connecting that meaning to the reality of the text and applying it to your people.

Before You Know It

Retirement will be here before you know it. When it comes is not the time to prepare for it. It’s too late by then. It can be hard to get twenty-year-olds to see that, but that doesn’t change it. Likewise, preachers all have a day coming when their ministries will be over. Age, health, or something will take us out of the pulpit. If nothing else, the grave will end our work (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A day of reckoning is coming. The foundation has been laid and preachers are required to build on it. Paul said we can build on it with “wood, hay, stubble,” or with “gold, silver, precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12). We are going to be tried and receive reward or suffer loss (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). Of course, you can preach in the can if you want to, but remember the servant and his napkin (Luke 19:24).

*Be advised: This post is for illustration purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice, nor any reasonable facsimile thereof. ShortPosts.com is neither endorsed nor acknowledged by the FCC, FTC, SEC, FDIC, BBB, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, or any other letters of greater or lesser significance. Please read responsibly.

 

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