The archives at The Gospel Coalition site are amazing! There you will find a veritable treasure trove of audio and print resources from those associated with the Coalition. Recently, I found a talk given by D. A. Carson on how to preach through books of the Bible. And, although I’m not doing that sort of series right now (I’m preaching each book of the Bible in one message, from one key passage), I usually preach through books, and found this talk very helpful.
You can access all of Carson’s content (over 400 items!) at TGC site here. Needless to say, the whole message on preaching through books is well worth a listen. But, in the mean time, here are his “apostolic number” of points.
1. Read and re-read and re-read and re-read and re-read the book.
It’s a mistake to choose the book to preach through, then start reading commentaries. Read the book through in English, and the original language (Hebrew or Greek) if you can. Furthermore, reading it through more than once means you are able to absorb more it. One minister used to read through a book of the Bible a hundred times before he started to preach through it. This doesn’t need to be the standard, but gets at the point–he knew the book well before he began preaching.
2. Start the process early.
Ideally, starting the process of preparing to preach through the book early means we have time for re-reading and thus to meditation. Begin early enough so that you are able to think through important issues and gain clarity about its message. Often the best insights come when you’re not trying. You’ve just flooded your mind with the Word of God and you begin to see the connections. Starting early helps you also get supplementary material like illustrations and such. Beginning early also allows you to pray over the text.
3. Eschew the division of head and heart.
Do not think that study time needs to be separate from devotional time, where one involves serious thought and contemplation while the other means lots of fuzzy feelings. Read the Bible with unity of purpose–rigorous study with devotional meditation.
4. Early on attain sufficient grasp of the book as a whole.
Be able to know the book well enough so that you can succinctly state: (a) what the book is about, (b) what this book contributes to the canon that overlaps with what other books bring to the canon, and (c) what distinctive things this book brings to the canon. All these things need to be thought about simultaneously. This is what brings clarity and precision. So, if you want to preach through Matthew. What is the book of about? Jesus. Yes, but can’t we also say that about Mark, too? What is Matthew’s distinctive contribution. Scan biblical theologies on the book, or the theology portions of the introduction in the best commentaries.
5. At roughly the same time (as #4), determine the breakup of the book.
This involves two things: (a) the number of sermons you’ll devote to the book and (b) the large scale outline of the book insofar as it impinges on your text boundaries for each sermon. As to the number of sermons per book, there is only choices and entailment,s no right or wrong answers. So things like who the congregation is (what they know), what else you’re trying to cover, your own competence as a preacher, the kind of literature the book is (narrative, letters, etc), and what your aim is. That is, you can preach every verse, or simply large sections of it. If you don’t get a handle early on, the sermons can be dependent on how far you got in your study instead of where the best breaks are in the book! Try to think also about the specific contribution of each sermon so you aren’t repeating yourself.
6. Start working on individual sermon preparation
Either in advance or week by week, begin now working on individual sermons. Ideally, work on the text first before looking at commentaries. Usually, one will find that there are a handful are really worth reading. Like anything, read best for the time you have. As you study, keep detailed notes in a good system of organization. This makes any future work much easier. Also–especially for the young or well-trained preacher–work on leaving stuff out. You can’t put everything in every sermon, or else it will be heavy and “indigestible” for people. Put the best and most important information in your message.
7. Each sermon must simultaneously stand alone and constitute a part of the series.
You want the sermons to have a certain continuity between the sermons. At the same time, keep in mind that some people will miss a week or visitors will pop in for one sermon or people will join the middle of the series. So, each sermon must be able to stand alone–it must be understandable apart from the series. So, you’re striving for the balance of a message that has it’s own burden and application but which feels–those who have been there the whole time–like it fits well into the whole book series, with enough information that ties it to everything else.
8. Recognize the contributions of whole-Bible biblical theology and a book biblical theology.
This means looking at a Charles Scobie-type biblical theology and a Paul House-type biblical theology. Scobie looks at large themes that run through the whole Bible. House looks at the themes of the individual books. The point is that you want to give your listeners a sense of the big picture–both of the specific book and of the whole Bible. The point is that we want to help people understand how the Bible fits together as a whole, finding climax in Christ.
9. Recognize that special study and focus may be necessary for certain books.
For certain books, the question of date–when was it written–will be important because it will affect your interpretation on some passages (e.g. Galatians). For other books, understanding something of the cultural background may be important to your interpretation. Different kinds of literature may require special study too (a focus on wisdom literature, for example). That doesn’t mean you give all this information in sermons; you can reduce it to one or two sentences.
10. Try to make you sermon material reflect the genre that you’re preaching from.
How can you can make your sermon from Revelation sound like Revelation? How can you make your sermons from Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes sound like they been born and bred and reared and shaped by Wisdom itself? The same goes for narrative–tell a story, don’t make it sound like discourse. Your sermons from Paul shouldn’t sound the same as your sermons from the Gospels or Proverbs. [Carson has some lectures on how to do this too!]
11. Remember the sermon is not an exercise in artistic creation.
A sermon is never an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Namely, the re-revelation of God to his people. This requires us to think about the people to whom we are preaching. What level are they at? What do they know? What are their interests? This affects how you do application and present the message itself. If you are into sports, but no one else is, that means you need to work at keeping the sports illustrations to a minimum.
12. Keep revising, praying, preparing so that you are master by the text.
Don’t prepare so much to be a master of the text, as much as to let the text master you. There is a way of preaching where you project an image of being an expert. Then there is a way of preaching that projects an image that you have been captured. Part of this is how you study and prepare as well as where your attitude is–what do you think of God? His Word? His Son?