Wineskins Archive

January 20, 2014

Preach the Text, Brother! (Jan – Feb 1994)

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by Joel Stephen Williams
January – February, 1994

23“It’s the economy, stupid!” became a household phrase when it was revealed that these words, written on a chalkboard, summarized the key to Bill Clinton’s campaign strategy. The point was bluntly made, and the strategy won the election. Not long afterwards the Republicans wore buttons which gave their philosophy: “It’s the spending, stupid!” I am sometimes tempted to go up to a preaching brother and say, “It’s the text, stupid!” In the interest of peace and harmony, it’s much better for me to say, “It’s the text, brother!”

Much preaching passes as biblical preaching because it is either preceded by a Bible reading or has numerous single verses interspersed throughout the sermon. Unfortunately, much preaching has little to do with the Bible. The ideas do not come from the Bible and the structure of the sermon rarely comes from the Bible. What is greatly needed today is more Bible preaching, whether it comes in the form of expository, textual, or topical sermons. Good expository sermons are particularly rare.

One way that the text is being overlooked today is through allegorical interpretation. The audience usually thinks it is biblical preaching and the preacher may think it is biblical preaching, but both are wrong. Consider two examples. One preacher outlined what he called an expository sermon from Luke 2:42-46. When the parents of Jesus left him behind in Jerusalem, they soon discovered that he was not with any of their friends. This was allegorized to mean that we ought to examine whether or not Jesus is with us in our doctrine and in our conduct. When Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem to find Jesus, this was said to mean that we need to repent and go back to Christ and the Bible. This text supposedly gave precedent for the Restoration principle! As this preacher urged his audience to listen to the Bible, his allegorizing caused him to ignore the very message of the Bible. It’s the text, brother!

Another sermon was built around the story of the great catch of fish in Luke 5:1-11. When the disciples caught so many fish that their nets were about to break, they signaled for their partners to help. The preacher said this text means we are to cooperate with others in evangelistic work. What? No! This is not a secret message for soul-winning techniques encoded in allegorical form; it means that they caught so many fish they needed help from their fishing partners to handle the huge catch. It’s the text, brother. Preach the text, not an allegorical dream of your own concoction.

Allegory has a long history in biblical interpretation, but it should be shunned. Look for the literal and historical meaning first. With the allegorical method there is no control. The text means whatever the imagination of the interpreter wants it to mean. Bernard Ramm explains: “The curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God… The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 30). Luther called allegory “a nose of wax,” that is, it can be twisted into any shape one desires. Even if the point being made through allegorical interpretation is a true one, the end does not justify the means.

Topical preaching may also include lots of Bible without being true Bible preaching. There is a place for topical preaching. Some subjects are found only in bits and pieces throughout the Bible. Word studies make an appropriate topical sermon. But all too often, a topical sermon is built with our ideas, our outline, and our arguments. Then a verse or two or three is tacked on the end of each line of the outline to make it “biblical.” The resulting sermon may contain 50 or even a hundred verses. Someone may remark after it is preached, “That preacher sure does quote lots of Scripture!” But we should ask if the text truly drove the lesson. Were all of the verses at the end of each line taken in context?

If ninety-five percent of one’s preaching comes in topical form, is one being true to the Bible? Yes, the Bible does contain propositional statements of truth which are only one short sentence long, but is not a majority of the Bible in story form? If we preached mostly expository sermons, would we not find that many of our old, favorite sermon topics must be ignored because no Bible writer devoted any attention to those topics? Would we not find that many new topics would come to the forefront? In expository preaching the biblical text stands front and center instead of the preacher’s delivery, creativity, or ingenuity. This is why Ramm said, “The crowning method of preaching is the expository method” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 97). Yes, it’s the text, brother.

I tried for most of a semester to get students to study a single text of five to ten verses in the Gospels and write a lesson devoted to expounding that text. The students kept taking off in all directions, outlining their own ideas, adding truckloads of prooftexts at the end of each line—thinking the more prooftexts, the higher the grade. Finally in frustration, I held up a King James Bible and asked, “What do you see?” After a variety of answers were given, I helped them see that every verse was a paragraph standing alone. I then held up a New Revised Standard Version and asked, “What do you see?” They saw paragraphs that were blocks of material which fit together. These paragraph and verse divisions are the translators’ opinions, but there is usually good internal justification for them. I did my best to teach my students not to treat the Bible as if it’s a collection of one-liners, which is what much topical preaching does with the Bible.

Recently I heard an older preacher at a rural church on a Sunday evening. I confess that I was not expecting much from the sermon announced: “The Transfiguration of Jesus.” What a surprise. That sounded quite good. At least it was not an extra-biblical idea superimposed on the Bible. The preacher told the locations of the story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 2 Peter. He then used Mark as his text. He gave an appropriate introduction and then worked through the passage verse by verse. He alluded to Luke’s account when necessary. The meaning of the text was expounded, and quite accurately, I might add. He had done his homework. Finally about five minutes of application was given. After the lesson I complimented the preacher so much that he got a little embarrassed. But his lesson expounded the text, not his ideas and not some brotherhood issue.

Yes, it’s the text, brother. Preach the text.Wineskins Magazine

Joel Stephen Williams

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