Preparing Sermons that Deliver
You are called to a daunting mission. Who has called you? What is the intimidating task at hand? God has called you to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. Paul, the great apostle, missionary, and preacher asked the Corinthians a revealing question in 2 Cor. 2:16 concerning this inconceivable task: “Who is sufficient for these things?”
The call to preach includes the call to prepare biblical messages. This article is designed to guide you through this challenging quest. But first, I have a confession to make. Although I had preached weekly for twelve years (during which time I graduated from Bible College and Seminary), I didn’t understand sermon preparation as I ought. I have no one to blame but myself. Nonetheless, the Lord led me to study homiletics at the doctoral level with a focus upon preparing laymen to preach. It was during this period of time which culminated with the writing of my dissertation entitled Developments and Evaluation of a Sermon Preparation and Delivery Class for Laymen that I could finally say “eureka.” My sincere prayer is that whether you’re a novice or experienced preacher the following information will enable you to say “I have found it.”
THE F.I.R.E. OF SERMON PREPARATION
The acronym F.I.R.E. stands for familiarity, interpretation, relationship, and employment. These four steps are essential to the sermon preparation process. There is another “fire” that first must be discussed without which no sermon sizzles. This fire is what kindles the F.I.R.E. of sermon preparation. It consists of the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit guiding God’s servant through the preparation operation.
Interestingly, there has been much interaction about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in sermon proclamation. Sadly the same cannot be said of the preparation stage. It is the author’s contention that the Holy Spirit who guided the biblical writers to pen God’s Word without error is as essential to sermon preparation as to sermon delivery.
Before Jesus proclaimed God’s Word in Luke 4:16-19 Dr. Luke informs us that Jesus was both filled and led with God’s Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) and that upon His arrival to Galilee (Luke 4:14) from the wilderness that He “returned in the power of the Spirit.” All of this occurs before Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 during His preaching where He says in Luke 4:18 that “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
This power was not limited to our Lord. During a time of persecution the early church gathered for prayer. Acts 4:31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.” It is imperative that the servant of God humbly seeks the Holy Spirit’s illumination by prayer throughout the F.I.R.E. stage of sermon preparation.
After you have chosen your sermon passage you must become “familiar” with the text. Those with language skills should start by translating the passage. The English reading student should read and re-read the text often using various translations of the Bible. I would recommend that you read the text aloud to experience the passage aurally.
Next, make a list of things to investigate that you don’t understand about the text. This could include such details as unfamiliar names like Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi from the book of Hosea, places like Tyre and Sidon from Mark 7:24, cultural importance such as when Jesus interacted with a woman who was Greek and Syro-Phoenician by birth in Mark 7:26, and the meaning of words you don’t know.
Then you can ask questions of the text applying this little ditty:
I had six faithful friends
They taught me all I knew,
Their names are How and What and Why,
When and Where and Who.
For instance, let’s use these interrogatives to ask the following questions in Mark 1:40-45: How was leprosy viewed in Jesus’ day? What is leprosy? What did Jesus do to heal the leper? What does the word “compassion” mean in Mark 1:41? Why was Jesus moved with compassion (ponder His eternal nature)? Why did Jesus charge the leprous man not to tell anyone that he was healed? When did the leper come to Jesus (hint: see Mark 1:32-39 and note v. 38)? Where did Jesus send the leper after he was healed? Who was impacted as a result of the leper’s disobedience (see Mark 2:1-2)?
The second step of Bible study involves “interpretation.” Your goal in interpretation is to answer the questions that were developed from the familiarity phase of Bible study. For instance, you could look up unfamiliar names, places, cultural happenings, and the meaning of words using a good Bible dictionary and encyclopedia.
Unger’s Bible Dictionary gives helpful information on Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi. According to Unger the name Lo-Ruhamah means “not pitied.” He continues, “The name divinely given to the second child (a daughter) of the prophet Hosea (1:6) to indicate that the Lord will not continue to show compassion toward the rebellious nation.” He also points out that the name Lo-Ammi means “not my people” and that “the figurative name given by the prophet Hosea to his second son by Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hos. 1:9), to denote the rejection of the kingdom of Israel by Jehovah.” The student now has a much better understanding of the meaning of the book of Hosea by simply finding out the meaning of the names of Gomer’s children.
In Mark 7:24 Jesus leaves Capernaum and goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Macarthur points out in his study Bible that these were “two Phoenician cities.” Wiersbe remarks that “Mark records three miracles that Jesus performed as He ministered to the Gentiles in the region of Tyre and Sidon.” Wiersbe continues, “He [Jesus] was practicing what He had just taught the disciples: there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, for all are sinners and need the Savior.” Therefore taking the time to find out the importance of geographical locations is paramount to discovering the text’s meaning.
The interpreter must uncover the cultural clues given in a text. Jesus is described in Mark 7:26 as interacting with a woman who is a Greek, and Syro-Phoenician by birth. Again, Wiersbe astutely remarks, “To begin with, her nationality was against her: she was a Gentile and Jesus was a Jew. Besides that, she was a woman, and society in that day was dominated by the men.”
Part of the interpretive phase of Bible study involves determining the meaning of words and seeing how that word is used particularly by the same author. Looking up the meaning of the word “rebuked” in Mark 4:39 is helpful. A concordance allows the student to see that the Greek word epitimao is first used by Mark in Mark 1:25 where Jesus “rebuked” a demon. The second occurrence in Mark 3:12 also cites Jesus rebuking unclean spirits. Does the word “rebuked” in Mark 4:39 allude to Mark 1:25 and 3:12 and implies that Satan is behind the storm recorded in Mark 4:35-41?
We have already looked at the familiarity and interpretive stages of Bible study. Now the exegete must figure out how the passage we are studying “relates” to its surrounding context, the book in which it is found and the entire Bible. We will focus upon Mark 6:45-52 for this portion of the study.
Mark 6:45 begins with the word immediately. It is used eighty times in the NT and forty times in Mark. Why is it used here? Jesus had just fed the five thousand (Mark 6:32-44. John’s account shows at the end of the feeding that the people wanted to make Jesus their King (John 6:15). This is why Jesus immediately puts the disciples into the boat because He didn’t want them getting caught up in the self-serving frenzy. After all, His disciples struggled with selfish ambition (see Mark 9:33-35; 10:35-45).
Now we know why He put them into the boat. But why does He permit them to struggle in the storm? Could it be that they needed to learn that God’s kingdom wouldn’t be spread by their own prowess but His? Mark records that as the disciples were struggling at rowing that Jesus “would have passed them by.” What does this mean?
Grassmick in the Bible Knowledge Commentary makes a profound assessment of these words when he states, “He intended ‘to pass beside’ them in the sense of an Old Testament theophany (Ex. 33:19, 22) to reassure them.” This fits with the usage of the LXX in Ex. 33:19,22 where God was going to “pass by” Moses to manifest His glory. Jesus is manifesting His power and glory to His disciples. This ties Mark 6:45-52 into the grander them of the Bible: the glory of God.
The above information shows the importance of “relating” a passage to its immediate context, the context of the book, and the context of the Bible. We are now ready for the last part of F.I.R.E.
Webster defines “employment” as use or purpose. Once the first three phases of Bible study are accomplished the preacher must strive to understand the use or purpose of the passage. In other words, the exegete needs to comprehend how the passage being studied was to be employed by its original hearers. After this information is grasped, the preacher can then accurately employ/apply the text to his audience.
Let’s look at Mark 4:35-41 as an example for employment. Verse 35 gives the first part of the story where Jesus says to His disciples “Let us cross over to the other side.” This simple statement by Jesus should have been adequate for His followers to know that they would safely go from the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee to the Eastern Shore. The appropriate employment of this statement should have compelled the disciples to believe that Jesus’ words are to be embraced.
The disciples are now in the boat and a tumultuous storm sneaks up on them (vv. 36-38). This is not unusual for the Sea of Galilee is approximately 690 feet below sea level and surrounded by mountains. Amazingly, Jesus is asleep during the storm and the disciples arouse Him and ask “Teacher, doYou not care that we are perishing?” They should have understood (employed) that Jesus’ presence in the boat brings calm.
The climax comes as in vv. 39-41 as Jesus “arose and rebuked the wind.” He demonstrates to His bewildered followers that He does care. Jesus then corrects them for their fear and they marvel at Him. What didn’t the disciples employ? Jesus’ power should be honored even in the midst of a storm. What can the modern audience employ from this text? Let us embrace the promises of God so that we can weather any storm without fear because we accept by faith that He is with us! We are now ready to move on to the next step in preparing a sermon.
DEVELOPING EXEGETICAL, THEOLOGICAL,
AND HOMILETICAL POINTS
The preacher has an enormous challenge before him. He is called to proclaim the timeless truths of the Word of God which are anchored in the nature of an unchanging God to people who are vastly influenced by a rapidly shifting culture. How does the preacher apply these timeless truths to people in his generation and maintain both accuracy and relevancy without compromising the authority of God’s Word? The answer is found in the three-fold method of sermon preparation which includes developing exegetical, theological, and homiletical points.
The word exegesis according to Webster means “an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.” The Greek word for exegesis is exegeomai. It comes from two words which literally means “to lead out.” Zodhiates defines this word as “to bring or lead out, declare thoroughly and particularly.” This word is used six times in the Greek New Testament. It is found in John 1:18 which says, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” Jesus came to exegete the Father. This means that He came to “declare [God] thoroughly and particularly.”
I will use Matt. 3:1-12 to walk you through the development of exegetical, theological, and homiletical points. First, how many points should each sermon have? The answer lies in the natural divisions of each passage. There are two major movements in Matt. 3:1-12. The first exegetical point based upon vv. 1-6 could be stated: John preached a baptism of repentance which many received. The second point from vv. 7-12 is John warned the religious hierarchy to repent and bear fruit lest they be judged. Remember, exegetical points simply reflect the author’s intended message.
Next, the theological points must be derived. The theological points are gleaned from the timeless truths in the passage. Richard’s comment is helpful, “Each human author of Scripture had a particular audience for whom he wrote. But the scope of his intention, supplemented by unconscious application, has meaning much beyond the original referent.”
Developing theological points is a necessary step in sermon preparation which keeps the exegete from eisogesis and thrusting his “own principles” upon the text. Sunukjian’s summation of the once popular so-called key word approach is helpful. He writes, “This interrogative key word approach was a means of creating the speaker’s outline, rather than a means of finding the central truth in the author’s outline. Unfortunately, all too often the speaker’s resulting out-line was artificial and arbitrary, masking the biblical author’s real flow of thought and missing the true theology of the passage.”
The first theological point in Matt. 3:1-6 is Repent for He is coming. The second theological point could be stated from vv. 7-12, Evaluate your repentance for He is coming. You now have points that are timeless in nature and reveal the immediate relevance for your audience. This phase of sermon development isn’t designed to make the Bible relevant but rather to show its relevance.
We are now ready for the homiletical points. They are derived from the theological points. These homiletical points should reflect the timeless truths of the Word of God and be geared toward your specific audience. Try to keep the points brief and memorable. The first homiletical point for Matt. 3:1-6 is Change your way for He is coming and the second for vv. 7-12 is Weigh your change for He is coming.
DEVELOPING THE INTRODUCTION, ILLUSTRATIONS,
TRANSITIONS, AND THE CONCLUSION
The importance of a good introduction cannot be overemphasized because of the necessity to gain the attention of your audience. Spurgeon aptly writes, “Their attention must be gained, or nothing can be done with them.” How does the preacher gain the attention of the audience? Be creative!
Introductions should not be predictable. You might want to start the sermon with a personal story. People love stories. Another way to gain attention is by telling a joke. Always make sure that the joke is appropriate and leads the people to the body of the sermon. Statistics are helpful. However, be careful that the statistics are relevant to the sermon and brief in content. Also, a major motif is alluring. This device is generally a story that you break into parts throughout the sermon. You introduce the story at the beginning of the sermon and give its second part during the body of the message and conclude the sermon with the culmination of the story.
Illustrations are a necessary component of preaching. What is an illustration and what should it accomplish? John Reed writes, “The American Heritage Dictionary gives three levels of definition for the word. These are the three: 1. Illustration is the act of clarifying or explaining. 2. Illustrations are the material used to clarify or explain. 3. Illustrations can be visual matter used to clarify or decorate a text.”
Gentleman, a friendly reminder is not just to illustrate your sermons with manly examples from football, fishing, and barbecuing. It is important to note that “when a pastor steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning, the odds make it likely that nearly three out of every four adults waiting to hear the sermon are women.” Therefore illustrations from the realms of sewing, cooking, and family would be welcome.
Having good transitions in a sermon is like having a good transmission in a car that enables you to shift gears smoothly. The preacher doesn’t want to have a herky-jerky message when he preaches. Cahill says transitions should do three things: First, transitions can provide closure for the proceeding point. Second, transitions show the logical connection between the main points. Third, transitions anticipate the content of the next section.” A disciplined preacher will plan his transitions carefully.
A good conclusion to a sermon is as necessary to the message as a smooth landing to an airplane after it has reached its destination. There are multiple ways that a preacher can conclude his sermon. The important thing to remember is that a good conclusion will leave your audience with a sense of completion (no loose ends) and to know exactly what God now requires them to employ.
You may want to conclude the sermon with a restatement of your main points. This can help the listeners to recall what God requires of them. You may also use an appropriate poem or stanza from a hymn that sums up the message. Perhaps you may desire to leave them with a challenge. For instance, I challenge you to pray for ten minutes each day or to read their Bible for twenty minutes a day. A good illustration that sums up the entire message would be helpful. The important thing is that you finish your sermon with an appropriate challenge or exhortation or encouragement.
May God help us to heed Paul’s exhortation to Timothy when he writes in 2 Tim. 4:2, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.”
 Merrill Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1966).
 Ibid., 667.
 Ibid., 663.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1463.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor, 1989), 135.
 Ibid., 136.
 The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (USA, Canada, and England, 1985), 131.
 Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1993), 604.
 The author is indebted to Dr. Timothy S. Warren’s helpful information on this topic found in his article in Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1999) entitled “The Theological Process in Sermon Preparation.”
 Ramesh P. Richard, “Application Theory in Relation to the New Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (July-September 1986), 207.
 Donald R. Sunukjian, Invitation to Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 83.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1954, 127.
 The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1998, 148.
 Alice P. Mathews, Preaching That Speaks to Women, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 2003, 22.