Prepare the Material
Prepare the Material
In the last lesson we considered personal preparation for ministering. This lesson will focus on the preparation of material for preaching and teaching.
The Bible is God’s message to people. As such, it is the primary source of material for preaching and teaching. As you preach and teach it is important to follow Paul’s words to Timothy on ministering the truth: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). In this lesson you will learn about two important aspects of interpreting Scripture: 1) the use of context, and 2) the importance of literal and figurative language. These will help you properly prepare sermons and lessons, and effectively communicate God’s truth to others.
The last part of this lesson offers practical help in gathering and organizing material in a systematic way.
Use of Context
The context of a scriptural portion includes all that surrounds it. The verses, paragraphs, and chapters before and after a text make up its immediate context. The extended context consists of that portion of Scripture less closely related to the passage and may embrace paragraphs, a chapter, or even an entire book of Scripture. Use of context to interpret Scripture will help you to prepare lessons and sermons that are true to biblical truth. Errors in doctrine and practice are made when a single verse of Scripture is taken out of context and given the wrong meaning. So-called “proof texts” often are passages of Scripture taken out of setting and used to “prove” something someone wants to believe. The Bible warns that ignorant and unstable people may give false explanations of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) and encourages those who minister to seek God’s approval by correctly teaching the message of God’s truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
As a single thread does not show all the pattern of a tapestry, so a single verse of Scripture does not give all the meaning of truth. However, as with tapestry, the full pattern of truth is seen when all the threads of Scripture are properly woven together. When you use the context, the Bible is the best interpreter of its own truths. This is commonly called “the analogy of faith.” Let us see how the context can be used to interpret Scripture.
Read the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24–30. Notice that when the crowd left, Jesus explained the parable to His disciples. Now read the context (Matthew 13:36–43) for Jesus’ interpretation of the parable. Most parables are self-explanatory if you pay careful attention to the context.
A detailed account of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the Feast of Shelters is given in John 7:10–39. On the last day of the feast Jesus stood up and cried with a loud voice, “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him’” (v. 38). These words are explained in the context by John, the inspired author: “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (v. 39). The explanation given by the context is the correct interpretation because the writer states this directly in the Scripture.
Words Defined by Context
The context can be helpful in finding the meaning of words. We must be careful to let the context of a word determine its meaning and importance because the context of a word limits its meaning and keeps it from being interpreted in more than one sense. Mark 12:18 tells about the beliefs of the Sadducees: “Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.” Acts 23:8 amplifies this information and includes a statement about the beliefs of the Pharisees.
Questions to Provoke Thought
What Is the Setting?
You will better understand what the Scriptures mean if you know the setting of the writing or speaking. Nearly every utterance Jesus made was a response to circumstances. His teaching on the new birth was an answer to the inner need of a religious man (John 3:1–21). His discourse on the “Water of Life” was given by a well to a spiritually thirsty woman (John 4:1–30). When the disciples returned from the Samaritan village, Jesus was prompted to instruct them about food and the will of God (John 4:31–35) and the need for laborers in the harvest (John 4:36–38). In each instance the setting is important to full understanding of the teaching.
Jesus’ teaching on lost things (sheep, coin, a son) in Luke 15:4–32 can be better understood when you know the circumstances that prompted His stories. Luke introduced this teaching by saying, “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable” (Luke 15:1–3). The attitude of the shepherd, the woman, and the father toward lost things is in sharp contrast to the attitude of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. However, the anger of the elder son toward his forgiven brother is a perfect example of the attitude of the Pharisees toward the sinners Jesus forgave.
It is important to understand the circumstances under which the books of the Bible were written. For instance, the book of Romans was written with Paul’s desire to visit the church at Rome weighing heavy on his heart (Romans 1:8–15). The Corinthian letters were written in response to what Paul had been told and what the people had written to him about the needs and problems of the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11; 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1).
Words or phrases in the text sometimes suggest a major division or turn of events. For example, at Caesarea Philippi Jesus began a new phase in His ministry to the disciples (Matthew 16:21). What caused this major change in His teachings? The answer is found in the context when Simon Peter said, “‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus had spent nearly half of His ministry teaching them He was the Messiah. When that truth was understood, He immediately began to teach them that as the Messiah He must suffer, die, and be raised again. Seeing this major turn of events will help us understand the emphasis on His death, which is given in the following chapters of Matthew.
Sometimes the divisions of a book can be detected by the repetition of phrases or words. For example, see 1 Corinthians 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1. Two of the major shifts in ministry in the book of Acts are recorded in Acts 8:1 and Acts 13:46.
Certain words or phrases repeated emphasize meanings to the passages. One of the repetitions of Matthew’s Gospel is the idea, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.” This is repeated in Matthew 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23, etc. Ask yourself questions about the setting of the Scriptures you are studying. Some of those questions might include: What are the circumstances? What caused this to be done or said? Why are these words repeated? To whom is this spoken, written, and why? Go to the context for the answers. It will enrich your understanding of the passage and give you examples and illustrations to use in preaching and teaching.
Who Is Speaking?
“‘Curse God and die!’” (Job 2:9). If these words sound strange coming from the Bible, it is because you may not know who said them and under what circumstances. Job’s wife made this statement when she saw her husband’s terrible condition after he lost all but his life. The context shows that Job rejected her words and remained firm in his faith in God. It will help you to correctly interpret the statement if you know who is speaking and under what circumstances. Identify a speaker as a godly or a wicked person, for both are recorded in Scripture. The words of the devil (Genesis 3:1–5; Matthew 4:1–11, etc.), along with the words of evil men like King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:28–30) and Haman (Esther 3:8–9), are in the Bible. Obviously, you would consider the words of wicked people differently from those of the godly. All Scripture is inspired by God, but all the people who speak in the Bible were not intended to be our examples. For this reason it is important to know who is speaking.
Additionally, when you read the Psalms or the prophets, keep a sharp eye open as to whether a man or God is speaking. For example, in Psalm 91, the author is speaking in verses 1–13 while God speaks in verses 14–16. Again, in Habakkuk 1 and 2, the dialogue goes back and forth from the prophet and God. It is vital you note who is speaking as you study.
Sometimes the words spoken will take on added meaning when you see the circumstances and know the person speaking. For instance, Peter’s defense for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1–18) is all the more meaningful when you realize how strongly he opposed the vision God gave him (Acts 10:8–21) before he went to preach to Gentiles at Cornelius’ house. The words of Paul concerning his faithfulness to the vision God gave him (Acts 26:19) are more impressive when you realize how much he suffered to be obedient to the vision (2 Corinthians 11:22–30). When he wrote to the Philippian church saying he had learned to be content with whatever conditions he faced (Philippians 4:12–13), he was writing from a prison cell (Philippians 1:12–14). It is important to know the character of the person who is speaking when you read what is said. The context will make this clear and give life and power to your preaching.
Literal and Figurative Language
Literal language is the normal, ordinary use of words and phrases. As a general rule, you should take the words of the Bible at their usual, primary, literal meaning. Only when language is obviously not literal should you seek a figurative meaning. There is no reason to doubt that Eden, Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, the nation of Israel, the church, or the New Jerusalem are literal persons, places, and things. The literal language of Scripture is not difficult to understand.
Figurative language is the representation of one thing in terms generally used to mean another. In the Bible, God is presented as a rock, a fortress, and a shield. Israel is referred to as a vineyard, a good man as a tree flourishing by the riverside, and the devil as a roaring lion who goes about to seize its prey. Figurative language is common in all cultures as a medium of communication that adds understanding. The Bible uses for its teaching word pictures drawn from everyday life in the home and from the countryside. This makes it possible to relate the Word to ordinary human interests. Thus the Bible truth makes an impression on the mind and can be easily remembered.
Figures of speech are scattered throughout the Bible and are not always easy to detect and understand. How can you tell if a passage is figurative or literal? Here is the simple rule: Scripture must be taken literally whenever possible; it is figurative only if it cannot be accepted as literal. Context and common sense will help you decide whether a given passage is literal or figurative. Even figurative language conveys a literal truth. To understand figurative language we should examine the way it is used in Scripture and we need to study carefully the background of both Old and New Testaments. Only in this way can we understand the figures of speech that are used.
One of the most common figures of speech is the simile. Similes are expressed comparisons of two different things or ideas in which something is said to be “like” or “as” something. See Psalm 103:13–16 and Proverbs 26:14 (KJV) for examples.
Nicodemus was puzzled when Jesus said that a man must be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:1–8). His response was, “‘How can a man be born when he is old? . . . Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’” (v. 4). Jesus was using figurative language, but Nicodemus was taking Him literally. A similar thing happened with the woman of Samaria: she thought Jesus was referring to water from Jacob’s well when He talked about life-giving water (John 4:7–15).
Sometimes people create problems by taking figurative expressions literally. When Jesus referred to His flesh as bread, the crowd argued (John 6:48–52). They asked, “‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (v. 52). Jesus then referred to His flesh as food and His blood as drink. At this, many of His disciples stopped following Him because the saying was hard to understand (John 6:60–66). Common sense would tell you (even if the context did not) that Jesus would not literally feed them His flesh and give them His blood to drink. Peter understood this. When the crowd went away he expressed his confidence that Jesus’ words gave eternal life (John 6:66–69). Even today among some believers there is misunderstanding on this matter. Some say that the bread and wine of Communion become literally the blood and body of the Lord Jesus. The fact is that Jesus was speaking figuratively, teaching us that through the suffering He would endure in His body and the shedding of His blood on the Cross, spiritual life would provided to humanity.
Using figurative language, Jesus took advantage of real events to teach spiritual truths on several occasions: the feast day and the living water (John 7:37–39), the healing of the blind man (John 9:1– 41), the death of Lazarus (John 11:1–27), and washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17). When you read these passages did you easily separate the literal happenings from the figurative language?
Gathering and Organizing Material
How to Start a “Sermon Garden”
Material for preaching and teaching must be gathered, filed in an orderly way, and kept for use when needed. Just as food must be gathered to prepare a meal, so material must be gathered to prepare sermons and lessons. It is equally important to be able to find the material quickly when you need it. For that, a filing system is needed.
You can set up a simple system with some folders on your computer. One way to do this is to create a folder entitled “Sermons” on your hard drive. Various subfolders can be created within your “Sermons” folder for illustrations, sermon ideas, sermon outlines, completed sermons, etc. Each complete sermon should be a separate file with its own name, carefully placed in an appropriate folder. Each sermon document should include a title, date, and place (where you preached it). This will be extremely helpful in case you ever feel inclined to rework it and preach it again at a later date. It will also help avoid the mistake of preaching the sermon twice in the same place!
Hint: although you may not want to preach from a manuscript, it is an excellent idea to write out your sermon word for word, especially when you are a less-experienced preacher. This way, you force yourself to think through what you are going to say and polish your thoughts.
If you do not have a computer, a portable file or small file cabinet will also work to store sermon fodder and completed messages. Some preachers keep their finished sermons in three or four-ring binders in some organized fashion such as by date, by topic, by series, etc. Never throw away a sermon or teaching you have prepared. Even if you are not satisfied with it today, you may find some material to reuse at another date.
Most sermons “grow” from seed thoughts or Scriptures that seem filled with meaning at the moment. These ideas, gathered from reading, observation, experience, need, and so forth, can be kept and eventually developed into sermons. The steps that follow constitute one way of organizing a “Sermon Garden” to use in developing sermons from the idea stage to full growth.