In a previous article, I argued that pastors ought to devote a greater portion of time in leading their congregations through Scripture than to any other approach in preaching. Preaching through books of Scripture is the “meat and potatoes” of one’s pulpit ministry.
While it is not my purpose to address the entire subject of sermon preparation, this article suggests a few steps for those who have never tried to preach through an entire book.
First, of course, start by choosing a particular book of the Bible from which to preach a series. This requires prayerful and thoughtful consideration.
Second, find the right tools to assist in your study. Aside from a selection of good commentaries, and what you may already use, consider Old and New Testament introductions. These books often give helpful information about the specific book you will be preaching through. Also, check the introductory section in commentaries. This section, often overlooked, can yield a wealth of helpful information and insights. Be sure to choose resources from authors that have a high view of Scripture.
How to Prepare
Next comes the initial preparation for a book series. Here are some tips for what that process might look like:
- Read the book completely through. Do it over and over again. If possible, try to read it completely through in one sitting. Consider reading the book in various translations.
- Write down initial observations about the entire book. This is not the same as preparing for a specific sermon. You are simply trying to listen to the text and hear what the author intended when he wrote it.
- Make an outline of the entire book. Again, this is not a sermon outline, but simply a working outline that will help you see where each paragraph (or section of thought) fits into the overall message of the book. This is not an easy task, but certainly one that will help you later on.
- Study as much introductory material on the book as you can. The more you can learn about the human author, original recipients, historical-cultural-geographic setting, literary form, and occasion or purpose of the book, the better you will be able to understand the meaning and application for each specific section within the book. I have found that this part of the preparation process helps to bring the Word to life.
- Study key words, phrases, or concepts that are emphasized in the book. For example, “faith” is a key word in Romans and “kingdom of heaven” is a key phrase in Matthew.
- Try to discover the primary purpose and message of the entire book. Write it down in one concise sentence.
- As you preach through the book, be sure to place each sermon within the context of the message of the whole book.
Some Pitfalls to Avoid
Here are some practical things to consider as potential pitfalls when preaching through a biblical book.
PITFALL 1: PREACHING A LENGTHY SERIES WHEN YOUR CONGREGATION IS NOT YET ACCUSTOMED TO THIS APPROACH
It is probably best to gradually acclimate your people to a book series. A good approach might be to pick a short book and limit the series to four or six weeks. Eventually, you can embark upon a more lengthy series. This not only gives your congregation time to learn how to benefit from this kind of preaching, but it also gives the pastor time to develop his or her own skills in preparing and delivering a book series, before attempting to preach through a longer and more challenging book.
PITFALL 2: PREACHING MULTIPLE SERIES FROM THE SAME GENRE OR LITERARY TYPE
It would probably be too much for you and your congregation to complete a series on Romans, and to then immediately launch into another series through Galatians. It would be better to follow a series through Romans, for example, with a biographical series on an Old Testament character, or perhaps a sampling of several of the psalms. This would give people a break from the intense theological writing of Paul, and allow them to feed awhile on one of the fascinating narratives in the historical books, or on the beautiful imagery and deep feelings expressed in the poetic literature found in the Bible.
PITFALL 3: IGNORING SPECIAL OCCASIONS OR OBVIOUS NEEDS IN YOUR CONGREGATION IN ORDER TO CONTINUE A SERIES
When delivering a more lengthy series of messages, it can be helpful, from time-to-time, to interrupt the series and preach a different kind of sermon. This is similar to when, within a sermon, a preacher changes the pace of the message with a story or a different tone of voice, in order to break the monotony and keep the attention of the audience.
In fact, there will be times when circumstances demand that you interrupt a series. For example, if your congregation has just experienced an unexpected tragedy, someone was just killed in an accident, or several families are going through a time of acute crisis. Also, there will be special events, such as a baby dedication, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so on, when it would be inappropriate for you to continue plodding through your series while ignoring the immediate need or occasion which is on everyone else’s mind. It is simply a matter of common sense.
There may also be times when the Holy Spirit lays on the minister’s heart a particular message or exhortation which must be delivered in a timely manner. This requires spiritual sensitivity and a willingness to surrender our programs and plans to the One whose ways and thoughts are much higher than ours.
For Further Reading on This Topic
While there are many good resources available to help the preacher get started on preparing a book series, here are some from my personal library which I have found helpful and can recommend for starters:
Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, by Graeme Goldsworthy. This entire book is worthwhile reading for all preachers, but of particular relevance here is a section that deals with how to preach from various genres of Scripture. It can be helpful to consult a resource such as this in order to begin getting a better “feel” for the way in which the book should be read, understood, and preached.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. While this is a good read on biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) in general, it also can be a helpful resource when doing an initial study of an entire book of Scripture, in order to better understand how to correctly interpret it. It is laid out very systematically. For example, before embarking on a series of sermons through the entire book of Hosea, one could read Chapter 10 of this book, which specifically addresses how to rightly interpret the Old Testament prophetic books.
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised and Expanded, by Gleason L. Archer. While this book deals with some deeper issues, it also offers general outlines of each book, which I find very helpful for comparison with outlines found in commentaries. It may also discuss general themes found in a particular book, which again, can help the preacher gain a bird’s-eye view of its overall message and thrust. Written from a conservative scholarly position, it will also help address any questions which may arise regarding authorship or other critical issues that people occasionally raise.
An Historical Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed., by Eugene H. Merrill. As is generally the case with Bible surveys, this book will provide the preacher with a handy reference for getting the 10,000-foot perspective of a book, before diving deep into the details of each specific paragraph or preaching portion. Again, this is most helpful during the initial study of the book, and will lay a good foundation for preparing the particular messages within the series.
Similarly to the two Old Testament books referenced above, I would recommend the following two resources for New Testament introduction and survey: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed., by D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, and New Testament Survey, by Robert G. Gromacki.
A NOTE ON COMMENTARIES
Commentaries can vary widely, even within a particular series. Therefore, it is wise to ask some scholars whom you personally know and respect for recommendations before indiscriminately purchasing them. I would recommend using at least three or four good commentaries in your study of a particular book. However, I would strongly discourage preachers from consulting any commentaries until they have spent a considerable amount of time immersing themselves in the text itself—reading it slowly, repeatedly, meditatively, and prayerfully. The primary purpose of commentaries should be to cross-check your own work and fill in any gaps in your understanding—not to do the hard work of study and prayer for you.
While the task of preaching through a whole book of the Bible may seem daunting at first, you will find that it is not nearly so intimidating after you begin taking the first steps toward the goal. Perhaps you’ve heard the humorous question: “How can you possibly eat a whole elephant?” The answer? “One bite at a time.” Likewise, how does one manage to preach through a whole book of the Bible? Very simply. By faithfully preparing and preaching one message at a time.