I’ll spare you a trip through the pseudo-mystical phase wherein the preacher “gets alone” with God and through “divine revelation” receives his next sermon! It is frustrating to hear pastors say, “God gave me this message,” or “God laid this message on my heart.” Typically, that means (loosely translated), “I am just winging it” and/or “I want you to believe I have a unique or special connection with God.” This new-age mysticism wrapped in super-Christian spirituality only represents one extreme of how not to approach preaching. The other, just regurgitating what others have said about the text, is addressed in another post (See, Thoughts on Preaching: Research, Reflection, and Reliance on the Holy Spirit).
If you’re still reading, you are either tired of laziness masquerading as spirituality or you’ve come to realize that the congregation deserves more of the Word and less quotes from your favorite commentator! Before moving on to the basic framework of sermon preparation, however, I must address two common fallacies.
First, pastors are not Old Testament Prophets and do not receive direct revelation from God. Either start your sermons with “Thus saith the LORD” and declare your message to be the 67th book of the Bible or be honest in your preparation and presentation of the biblical text. God did not keep you up late Saturday night in order to give you a divine message. You were either overwhelmed and got behind in your work this week, or, worse, you are lazy and (likely) think you can just make it up as you go and no one will notice.
Second, the Reformers and Puritans are a blessing to read and study, however, the congregation has not gathered for a seminary class on church history or the historical development of theology. Stop filling your sermons with quotes from everyone else. This approach is often a cover for (1) a lack of analytical skills and (2) an inability to conduct an appropriate historical, grammatical, and theological analysis of the text. If you lack these skills, there are plenty of classes and resources available in the field of hermeneutics. Less Luther and more Christ, please! Yes, you should teach the congregation the history of the church, but not every week. The church (a.k.a. the flock of God, 1 Peter 5:1-4) needs pastors who preach the word (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5), not puppets who just repeat what they’ve heard (or read)!
STEP ONE: READ THE BOOK OVER AND OVER (THEN REPEAT OVER AND OVER AGAIN)
Book? If you are only in search of a quick guide on how to throw together a sermon for this Sunday, wrong blog! I am currently leading a group of men to read through and outline Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. We began this work in the Spring in order to teach through Philippians beginning in the Fall (Autumn). Throughout this blog series, I will refer to the process of preparing a 15-part sermon series and complementary study guide on Philippians. During this initial stage, I will have read through Philippians 15-20 times. In past studies, I’ve read through other books up to 30 times while developing a rough draft outline.
Caveat on Prayerlessness: If you have to be told when to pray during sermon prep, I am afraid you’ve missed “the boat” and have confused a call to ministry with a desire to be famous. A man who aspires to teach the Word of God is praying at every stage of sermon preparation. It has been accurately stated that the Holy Spirit has an affinity for the trained mind. However, it would be rather peculiar to find a pastor who relies only on his study while forsaking the work of the Holy Spirit. Worse is the man who refuses to study believing preparation is a hindrance to the Holy Spirit, who (allegedly) provides sermons like magic. In stark contrast to the aforementioned errors, the faithful pastor relies upon the Holy Spirit throughout both the preparation and proclamation of the text.
STEP TWO: DRAFT AN OUTLINE OF THE BOOK
1. Start with your own outline of the book. In order to do this, you will need what we called in seminary, “a clean Bible.” That is, don’t use a study bible or one that has headings. The headings will inevitably influence your thinking as you attempt to outline the text. Below you will find my initial draft outline of Philippians. I’ll update this draft in future posts based on additional research and input from my team of young pastors-in-training.
2. Think in terms of paragraphs and not verses. The problem with breaking a letter down into verses should be obvious: the temptation to exclude difficult material. Try to read and outline the letter as if it wasn’t divided into verses. Remember that the verse divisions are only a tool, they were not part of the original inspired text.
3. Write one sentence for each paragraph. That is, just write the main point of the paragraph. Say it in your own words. You will likely rewrite theses sentences multiple times as you develop the larger outline. Furthermore, you may, after recognizing the theme(s) of the letter, scratch your original sentence and rewrite it in a way that both states the purpose of the paragraph and connects it with the main theme(s) of the book. Keep in mind that the main point of the paragraph will be the main point of your sermon. That is, if your sermon is text-driven.
4. Write a mini-outline for each paragraph. This aspect of outlining will develop throughout as you are identifying the divisions and paragraphs in the book. As you read a paragraph searching for the main point, you will begin to notice the structure of the argument. This structure will be used to support the main point of the paragraph in your text-driven sermon (sometimes referred to as “sub-points”). I will discuss diagramming the text in future posts on sermon preparation.
STEP THREE: LOOK FOR A PRIMARY THEOLOGICAL THEME IN THE BOOK
This is not really step three because as you spend time reading and outlining the text, you will begin recognizing certain themes being repeated throughout. If you’ve only read through the book once or twice you may be able to isolate the main theme(s). However, I strongly recommend reading the book at least 10-12 times before making a definitive statement about the primary theological theme(s). Frankly, this process is the natural out-working of developing an outline. That is, if you are continuously reading the book in order to develop a comprehensives outline and mini-outlines of paragraphs, you will have already begun to recognize major and minor theological themes.
Caution: The primary theme of Philippians is not JOY, it is CHRIST. Don’t start with the reader (i.e. listener) in mind. I may be getting ahead of myself, but a Christ-centered reading of the Bible doesn’t start with the felt-needs of people. Instead, we begin by reading all of Scripture in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 23:44ff; Hebrews 1:1-3ff).
PRACTICUM: MY INITIAL OUTLINE OF PHILIPPIANS PLUS MY INITIAL OBSERVATIONS ON THEOLOGICAL THEMES (ROUGH DRAFT)
Christological Foundation of the Letter: The Christ-Hymn (cf. 2:6-10). Everything in the letter is built on and/or flows out of knowing Christ, that is, a biblical understanding of both His person and His work (past, present, and future).
Theological Center of the Letter: No one or nothing can ever compare to the greatness of knowing and serving Christ, who is Himself the source of all things.
Sanctification (i.e., Christ-likeness, Christian-Living): Don’t start with joy and work back to Christ, which is a man-centered, felt-need approach. Instead, start with Christ, continue with Christ, and end with Christ. From here, the seed of the gospel will blossom into the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-23). In other words, true joy is a manifestation of knowing and enjoying Christ. Don’t seek joy, seek Christ, only then will you discover true and lasting joy!
Call to the Church: Gospel Unity! Those who have experienced the grace of God in Christ are called to passionately, intentionally, and strategically proclaim the gospel, defend the gospel, live the gospel, and partner with others to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Disunity and conflict in the church distracts believers from their collective mission and, worse, minimizes the power of the gospel to reconcile humanity to one another.
1) 1:1-2: A Local Church with a Global Mission
- The Pastor-Theologian & His Apprentice
- The Nature of the Church: “saints in Christ”
- The Providential Placement of the Church: “at Philippi”
- The Leadership of the Church: Overseers (Elders/Pastors) and Deacons
2) 1:3-11: Partnering with Gospel-Centered Christians to Take the Gospel to the Nations
- Spiritually-Healthy churches partner with other Christ-Centered, Gospel-Proclaiming Believers
- One church (alone) can’t reach the world
- The Great Commission calls for cooperation
- Missional-Pastors pray for the spiritual-growth of churches
3) 1:12-18(a): The Sovereignty of God & Suffering in Gospel Proclamation
- Suffering is not a hindrance to either the gospel or missions
- God is providentially using every circumstance to advance the Kingdom
- God has sovereignly placed you right where you are to preach the gospel to the people right in front of you
- Don’t be consumed with the alleged motives of other preachers and missionaries, just rejoice that Christ is proclaimed
- Rejoice when Christ is proclaimed, regardless of who is preaching
4) 1:18(b)-26: The Sovereignty of God & Perseverance in Gospel Proclamation
- Whatever your circumstances, don’t be ashamed to preach the gospel
- Your life belongs to Christ
- Your death belongs to Christ
- Your ministry belongs to Christ
Note: 3) & 4) are part of one primary section focused on the sovereignty of God over human affairs, and particularly over the lives of believers. However, I have broken the section into two preaching parts because all of the material cannot be covered adequately in one sermon.
5) 1:27-30: United in the Proclamation & Defense of the Gospel
- The call to collectively defend and proclaim the gospel
- Your perseverance in gospel proclamation is a sign of your salvation
- Suffering for the gospel is a gracious gift from Christ
- Gospel proclamation and suffering are often inseparable
6) 2:1-4: Gospel Doctrine Displayed (Manifested) in Gospel-Centered Unity
- Godly leaders are peacemakers not peacekeepers
- Only the gospel can bring unity
- Without sound theology there is no true gospel unity
- Gospel unity is manifested in self-denial, selfless-serving, and sacrificial love of other believers.
7) 2:5-10: Christology as the Foundation & Motivation for Gospel-Unity in the New Community (i.e., church)
- Christ is Lord (i.e., God of very God)
- Christ is eternal
- Christ was incarnate
- Christ atoned for our sins
- Christ is exalted
- Christ is our example
8) 2:12-18: Don’t Take the Gospel (i.e., God’s Grace) for Granted
- God alone saves, sanctifies, and secures us
- Never presume upon God’s grace
- Grace is not a license for sin (e.g., spiritual laziness, sinful idolatry, etc.)
- Cling to Christ
9) 2:19-30: God-Called Leaders are Gospel-Centered in Every Area of Life
- Serving Christ by equipping His church
- Serving Christ by persevering through trials
10) 3:1-11: God-Called Leaders Have a Christ-Centered Perspective on Life
- They aren’t impressed by worldly credentials
- They don’t pursue the wealth of this world
- They are willing to give up anything and everything for Christ
- They holding nothing as equal with knowing and serving Christ
11) 3:12-21: Biblical Eschatology (i.e., the Consummation) as a Foundation & Motivation for Persevering in the Faith
- Serve with the end in mind
- Never stop learning and growing in Christ (everyone still needs a mentor)
- You are not the gift to the Church, Christ is
- Imitate those who are seeking Christ
- You are sojourners in this life (your citizenship is in heaven)
12) 4:1-9: Godly Leaders Call the Church to Worship Christ
- Confront conflicts biblically
- Don’t separate worship from life (i.e., day-to-day living)
- Don’t separate doctrine from life (i.e., day-to-day decisions)
13) 4:10-13: Although Circumstances Change, Christ Never Changes
- When you have nothing, you really have everything
- Our confidence in Christ is not dictated by our circumstances
- Christ always provides the resources to ensure that we will persevere through every circumstance
14) 4:14-20: Christ-Centered & Gospel-Oriented Churches Generously Support Kingdom Work
- Give generously to the spread of the gospel
- Give regardless of your circumstances
- God is using you to provide for the needs of Kingdom work
- God always provides enough
15) 4:21-23: The Gospel Has NO Limits
- The gospel was spreading to the nations (i.e., Philippi)
- The gospel had taken root in Caesar’s household
Addendum: I apologize if the reader has mistaken my candor for arrogance or a lack of love for fellow pastors. My passion for Christ, His Church, and His Word compels me to confront laziness and apathy among my brethren. The pastoral ministry has been devalued and disrespected because of a lack of accountability and discipline among pastors. Thus, time for being polite has passed. Iron only sharpens iron when the two pieces come into contact with each other and knocks off the rough edges.
While I believe that revivals and awakenings are the result of the supernatural and providential work of God, it is my conviction that God uses the preaching of His Word as a means by which He pours out such manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we must persevere in faithful exposition of Holy Scripture in the hope and expectation that God will send revival at any moment.
Let the hard, yet rewarding work, begin!