First-person application for the preacher can be an unnerving task. How can this generally overworked individual possibly find the time or the occasion to apply what he has studied before the delivery of the sermon?
Furthermore, the average preacher speaks several times a week. (For the first 15 years of my ministry, I heralded God's Word four times a week.) As no preacher can assimilate everything he has studied during the week, which text should he focus on to apply during this period of time? This article will not only address the necessity for first-person application on the part of the preacher, but will offer a systematic approach to accomplish this vital quest.
Foundational Biblical Texts for Me-First Preaching
Ezra's paradigm to the study, application and proclamation of the sacred text is worthy of emulation. Ezra 7:10 states, "For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observation of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." Ezra began his exegesis by scrutinizing the text to see what the biblical author was saying. Once he understood the concept of the passage, he applied that message to his life. This circumspect scribe then pronounced the message to his audience.
His modus operandi was interpreting the biblical text (to learn the proposition of the third-person author), personal application (first-person implementation) and culminating with trumpeting the message (to the second-person audience). Ezra clearly practiced me-first preaching, because he first applied the text to himself before he taught others.
James 2:14-26 is the New Testament locus classicus on the necessity of first-person application—demonstrating one's faith by virtue of his or her works—the concept of which is easily transferred to preaching. James was apparently from Missouri (the Show-Me state) because he wrote inJames 2:18, "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." James cited Abraham and Rahab as examples of individuals who personally applied saving faith to their lives (first-person application) that was then portrayed to others by their deeds.
You have heard it said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Paul, the great missionary, practiced what he preached. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 he said, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord." Did you notice the order of the text? First, the Thessalonians mimicked Paul, Silas and Timothy and then the Lord. Moreover, Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:16 said, "Therefore I urge you to imitate me." In Christian living, as well as biblical preaching, imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Those who are called to proclaim the Word of God boldly are held to a high standard (see James 3:1). Paul illustrated this principle when he queried in Romans 2:21, "You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?" Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, concurs with Paul's sentiments when he wrote to his preaching students, "It is important that we be under the influence of the Holy Ghost, as He is the Spirit of Holiness; for a very considerable and essential part of Christian ministry lies in example." Me-first application in living and preaching are greatly endorsed by Old and New Testaments.
The General and Specifics of Me-First Preaching
The preacher is first and foremost a child of God. He is expected to cultivate a walk with God which includes, but is not limited to prayer, Bible reading and study, meditation on Scripture and the employment of the principles he learns from his daily walk with God. He, as are all believers, is to heed 2 Peter 3:18 which states, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Moreover, the master preacher, the Lord Jesus Christ, commanded His followers in John 15:4, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you." Jesus practiced what He preached. Isaiah 50:4 predicted the ultimate Servant would have a me-first attitude toward applying Scripture: "The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He awakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught." Jesus daily walked obediently with God and then proclaimed His marvelous Word based on that relationship. No wonder Jesus declared to His followers in John 15:5 (in the context of abiding) that "apart from Me, you can do nothing."
Paul emulated Jesus' example of me-first preaching. He called the Ephesian elders together and warned them in Acts 20:28 to "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock." He exhorted them first to care for their own spiritual well being before ministering to the flock. Paul emphasized to these leaders their need first to adhere to God's precious Word in Acts 20:32 where he declared, "Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up." The great apostle then continued in the following verses (33-35) to share how he himself modeled Christ to them and how they should follow his pattern of living.
The standard set by Jesus and demonstrated by Paul also was communicated to Timothy. Paul's younger associate was exhorted by his spiritual father concerning his pulpit ministry in 1 Timothy 4:13, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching."
What precedes this edict? The answer is found in 1 Timothy 4:12: "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity." That is, Timothy, first apply God's Word to your own life, then proclaim it to others. This order of application will ensure a fruitful ministry as Paul assured Timothy, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:16).
Me-first preaching always begins with the general application of God's Word. In other words, the preacher must walk with God and allow that life-changing Word to govern his life day by day (as shown by Jesus and Paul) before he preaches to others. Now that the need for general application is established, what plan should the preacher have for specific application?
As a result of studying homiletics for two decades, I have come upon many definitions of biblical preaching. My favorite description is by Haddon Robinson. He defines expository preaching as "the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers." The dean of expository preaching shows that once the student has grasped the meaning of the passage, he is then by the power of the Holy Spirit to apply that text personally and experientially before communicating the message to others.
Robinson's definition is valuable. However, how is the preacher to apply the text personally and experientially if the sermon preparation isn't completed until a few days (sometimes less!) before the preaching event? This limited window of opportunity generally doesn't allow sufficient time for the employment of application. Therefore a sermon should be completed at least a week prior to its delivery to allow adequate time for rumination on the biblical concept of the message and for its courier to practice what is to be heralded.
There are many advantages to having an entire week—rather than the traditional couple of days—to apply the timeless truths of God's Word once the adjustment is made to the pastor's preparation schedule. The preacher can set aside a block of time each day to review the message and meditate upon the application.
There is perhaps no better situation for reflection than during the pastor's devotions. He can use these sacred moments to seek heavenly direction on how to customize the personal application. Another choice occasion to reflect on the text and its applications would be before retiring for the evening. Either setting will facilitate keeping the message and its applications as his primary focus throughout the week.
On a more practical note, it is also advisable to write out the application(s) on a 3" X 5" card and carry that card with you. The applications can be meditated on while jogging, mowing the lawn or driving to an appointment. Our gracious Lord can use all these opportunities to imbue one's mind with insights to personal application. The obvious next step is to implement the action as revealed to the herald.
A Working Model
The author has a seven-fold model for sermon preparation. First, he applies F.I.R.E. to his biblical passage to be preached. The acronym F.I.R.E. stands for familiarity, interpretation, relationship and employment. Next, he develops his preaching points; they are the exegetical, theological and homiletical points. The homiletical points are the application points or timeless truths to be applied.
We will use Revelation 10 as our preaching text. The apostle John is commanded by Jesus Christ to write the Book of Revelation. Revelation 1:19 reveals a three-fold division of the book. In the third part of the outline, the seven-seal, seven-trumpet and seven-bowl judgments occur. Revelation 10 is part of an interlude that takes place between the sixth and seventh trumpets.
John sees (in a vision) a powerful angel coming down from heaven with a little book in his hand (vv. 1-2). After descending on the earth, three times this heavenly messenger is depicted as standing on land and sea (vv. 2, 5, 8), signifying judgment on both. John is then commanded to take the book from the angel's hand, eat it and prophesy (vv. 8-11). The homiletical or applicational point derived from the sermon preparation is, "Digest God's Word, then proclaim it."
Following the preparation paradigm as suggested in this paper, the preacher has now almost a full week to digest this point and make personal application. As he daily reflects and prays about this concept, he might choose to listen to a sermon (from his favorite preacher) on evangelism, then look for an opportunity to proclaim Christ's death and resurrection to an unbeliever. The selection to give ear to a sermon will enlarge the pastor's faith because as Romans 10:17 states, "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of God."
Moreover, the preacher might choose to be blessed by reading the entire Book of Revelation (Rev. 1:3) and then seek an opportunity to proclaim what he's learned. Also, he may select a portion of Scripture pertaining to missions. He could study, memorize or meditate on its meaning, all while asking the Lord to give him an open door to share that message with another. Imagine the delight of the pastor after he has applied his preaching text and then faithfully stands in the pulpit declaring, "Thus says the Lord."
Me-first preaching is a crucial component of sermon preparation. It is not only the model exhibited by Ezra, Jesus, Paul and Timothy, but also is the pattern practiced by modern biblical expositors of God's Word who lead lives of integrity. The above proposed paradigm when practiced will safeguard the modern bearer of glad tidings from being the most reprehensible creature known to the pulpit: the hypocrite.
The rewards for adopting a me-first attitude to biblical preaching are plenteous. First, you are succeeding a fellowship of great preachers such as Jesus and Paul. Also, you become a preacher worthy of imitation unlike the Pharisees of old. May Jesus never have to say of you what He said about these hypocrites in Matthew 23:3, "So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do." Finally, there is a calm assurance that when you mount the sacred pulpit, you truly know in the depth of your heart that you are practicing what you preach.
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