Each time you select a Scripture passage to preach on a given Sunday, you are implying the passage is able to stand alone. You are saying to your congregants the phrase, verse or verses function for the church. So it's critical that preaching portions possess a sufficient level of independence. Your choice of passage will largely determine the meaning you communicate, depending on how closely you stick to your selected text.
For instance, your choice of passage may lead you down the path of preaching a little idea. This is the case if you select Matthew 18:18–20 as your preaching portion. It reads, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."
On their own, you can understand how these verses are most often quoted in the context of a small prayer meeting. They seem to mean that God will answer the prayers of any two who are praying together about the same thing. Preaching with greater accuracy involves seeing verses 18–20 as containing small ideas that mean something in conjunction with a larger idea. If I do decide to select verses 18–20 as my preaching portion, I need to know that a larger idea in previous verses controls the meaning.
The larger idea is Jesus' instruction on how churches are to rescue faith-family members who refuse to turn from sin (cf. Matt. 18:15–17). At the end of the process, the church treats the professing Christian as a Gentile and tax collector. The question arises: Who gives us the right to make this judgment call? Verses 18–20 answer that question. From a human perspective, the church's decision about the sinning, professing believer is backed by the presence of God.
Can Matthew 18:18–20 function as a legitimate preaching portion? Yes, it can. Does it possess enough independence to function for the church? That depends on how much you allow context to determine meaning. It depends on your ability to differentiate between the meaning of exegetical fragments and the meaning of semi-complete thoughts. My take on it is that Matthew 18:18–20 does not possess enough independence to function for the church apart from its previous context. It contains an important little idea.
So what happens if you decide to preach those three verses? Early in the sermon, allow everyone to hear the larger idea driving the entire section. Then show the logical connection between that larger idea and the idea in verses 18–20. Once that connection has been said clearly, your preaching portion contains more meaning. It functions for the church in the way it was designed to function as dictated by the logical flow of thought—by continuing to urge Christians to rescue sinning faith-family members with full confidence of God's favor on the process.
If your preaching calendar includes preaching through books of the Bible, it is important to know how to preach little ideas. If your preaching style lends itself to thorough coverage of relatively small passages, it is important to know how to preach little ideas. In these cases, you may find yourself frequently preaching mini-series.
In the case of Matthew 18, the theme of rescuing a sinner rules a large section of the chapter. Perhaps you decide your sermon time on a Sunday morning does not allow adequate coverage of the section. So you divide the section into smaller, more manageable pieces. Because you are aware of how the meanings interrelate, you treat the three or four individual sermons as a mini-series dealing with the topic of rescuing sinners. Each individual sermon focuses on a slice of meaning that contributes to the whole. The little ideas do not stand alone to create meaning.
Another example is a lengthy narrative such as the Joseph story in Genesis 37–50. Unfortunately, God did not write the Bible to accommodate a 40- to 45-minute sermon. You could preach one sermon on the entire story. Even if you preached for a couple of hours, it would be impossible to cover all that material in detail. Or you may decide to preach a mini-series on this section as we discussed in the Matthew 18 example.
I find it helpful to make a distinction between the biblical author's preaching portion and my preaching portion for Sunday's sermon. The author's preaching portion—the complete narrative—might be too much to handle on a given Sunday morning. That's OK. I will divide the narrative into manageable morsels. I will attempt to interpret and apply each passage in light of how they contribute to the whole story. The mini-series will contain individual sermons that provide different aspects of God's sovereign ability to save His people in threatening circumstances.
Of course, you might select too much text. That can send you down the road to preaching more than one big idea. This happens frequently in the New Testament epistles where each paragraph can contain a big idea. You might try to preach a sermon on the Christian walk in Ephesians 4. However, there are many ideas in chapter 4 that could stand alone (cf. Eph. 4:9–16 and its detailed information on the gifted people Jesus gives to the church).
Directions for Identifying Preaching Portions
Begin at the Beginning: Whenever you choose to preach somewhere in the middle—in the middle of a chapter, story or paragraph—go back to the beginning of that chapter, story or paragraph. Then speed-read to locate beginnings and endings of potential preaching portions. Or begin at your preaching portion and read in reverse. As you backpedal, note the logical connections along the way. Try to identify the source of meaning for your preaching portion.
Pay Attention to the Structure of Your Genre: Genre can affect how you divide the Bible for sermons because different genres convey meaning differently. For instance, narratives are structured differently than poems. The structure of a particular book may help determine how much context must be consulted in order to correctly interpret a selected passage. Genre affects structure and structure affects context, which determines meaning.
Here are some brief thoughts about finding preaching portions from some biblical genres.
Didactic: Didactic literature teaches through argumentation and proposition. Grammatical structure utilizes a foundation of strong, finite verbs that control meaning within paragraphs. Ideas are supported or developed by clauses and phrases joined by various connectors such as conjunctions, relative pronouns and participles.
When seeking to identify a preaching portion in didactic literature, begin with a paragraph. We can recognize paragraphs by looking for:
- Connecting words that often signal new subject matter (now, concerning, therefore, cf. Rom. 3:19 "Now we know…")
- A new idea introduced by a finite verb or a question (cf. Rom. 4:9 "Is this blessing then on the circumcised…?")
- A list of commands or statements (cf. Heb. 13:1-4; Eph. 4:23–32).
Watch for times when a new paragraph begins, but an old idea continues. The grammar and syntax make it clear the new thought block is subordinate to the previous one. Romans 1:16–17 is a good example. Verse 16 begins, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel…" The grammar and syntax indicate that verses 16–17 explain why Paul is eager to preach the gospel to the believers in Rome (v. 15).
Narrative: A good place to begin looking for a preaching portion is at the beginning of stories. Changes in scenes, characters and time often indicate a new episode has begun. 1 Samuel 1:1 introduces a character: Elkanah. First Samuel 2:11 says, "Then Elkanah went home…"
As I mentioned earlier, be on the lookout for times when several stories work together to tell a larger one. Some of the narratives may have sufficient independence to warrant your selection for the teaching time in church. Remember, those narratives—little ideas, perhaps—are connected to a larger narrative within that particular section of Scripture.
Parables: A parable is a story or analogy that communicates through the use of fictitious or hypothetical characters and situations. Parables often function as independent units. In Luke's Gospel, however, parables can work in conjunction with narratives. Assume a parable stands alone, but see if it connects to a narrative. Look for the following:
- Narrator comments which introduce the parable (Luke 8:4, "And when a great crowd was gathering … he said in a parable…"; the narrative setup in the famous parable of Luke 15)
- A summarizing statement by Jesus that gives meaning to the parable (usually marking the end of the parable).
Poetry: Except for short psalms, you can expect to experience long preaching portions in poetry. Chapter divisions in Psalms are very reliable. Longer psalms packed with theology may require more than one sermon. Poetry sections such as 1 Samuel 2:1–10 function in conjunction with the larger, preceding narrative. When you encounter lengthy poems found in Job, long psalms or Song of Songs, major shifts in theme may help you divide the text.
Proverbs: Proverbs contains lengthy sections structured as didactic literature (cf. Prov. 31). Proverbs 2, 3 and 8 appear to be individual units of thought. Then, of course, you'll encounter many of the typical, pithy proverbs for which Proverbs is famous. In the middle are mid-sized passages such as instructions to the lazy in 6:6–11. Often a change of topic indicates a new preaching portion.
Prophecy: Preaching portions in prophetic literature often take the shape of sermons. Individual sermons may begin with dates that mark the time the sermon was given (cf. Haggai 1:1; 2:1). In many sections, prophetic literature shares the characteristics of didactic literature. There will be times when prophecy includes narrative scenes, so narrative clues can help you cut the text for preaching.
Visions: Visions are among the most difficult genres to interpret, but they might be the easiest when it comes to identifying preaching portions. Most of the time, the beginning and ending of a particular vision identify a valid preaching portion (cf. Rev. 4:1–11). There are times, such as in Zechariah, when the vision plus its interpretation combine to make a preaching portion.
Two Instructions That Apply to Any Genre
Genres Within a Genre: There will be times when your passage contains more than one genre. You'll encounter this often in Old Testament narratives and the gospels. Scout out movement from one genre to another: narrative to didactic, didactic to narrative, narrative to parable. Watch for the interrelationship between genres. An example of this is the interaction between narrative and parable that occurs in Luke 15's famous parable commonly referred to as "The Prodigal Son." When genres work in conjunction with one another, this often will lengthen your preaching portion; but you are ready to turn one lengthy preaching portion into a two-part mini-series, if needed.
Always Be Ready to Make Necessary Adjustments: I assume you will select your passage early in your workweek. As you begin to analyze it, be prepared to revise your parameters. Preaching portions are selected by identifying thought blocks. You identify thought blocks by locating beginnings and endings of meaning. This means the process of cutting the text and doing exegesis are interdependent and happen simultaneously. Our discovery of thought blocks validates our preaching portion.
So it's possible your preaching portion doesn't possess a sufficient level of independence. Your initial exegesis says you have subordinate or little ideas. If that's the case, you may need to adjust your passage or acknowledge you are preaching little ideas. Or you might decide your parameters contain more than one big idea. If so, you may want to decrease your preaching portion.
This article first appeared at Preaching.com and is used by special arrangement with that site.