The task of preaching.

2 Timothy 3v15-4v5 tells us it is to teach authoritatively, but with exhortation that corrects, rebukes, and encourages, and all with the ultimate goal of people glorifying God and doing good in his name. We are not told whether that has to be a monologue or can involve questions. But it differs from more general teaching in lecture or study by its exhortative nature.

The nature of the Bible as book commends “expository” preaching in which we seek to understand the meaning, big idea and transformational intent of a text in its context, structure and detail, which we “expose” to the hearer, and ensure it then governs the explanations and exhortations of the sermon. This is, I think, what John Piper means by preaching the “reality” that lies “behind” the text, and why he defines preaching as “expository exultation.” It is not simply to communicate ideas, but the key reality behind those ideas in such a way that people so feel and experience the truth of God and his ways, that they respond with devotion and obedience.

In achieving this, there are two stages in preparing a sermon – baking a cake and then decorating it.

Baking the cake.

This is the work we do in understanding how the detail and structure of a text works to do something in its original hearers that we want to bring home to the modern hearer, with an eye on how that something is developed through Christ by the rest of scripture. As someone once put it: “As far as possible we want to replicate the rhetorical impact of the text.” So, the cake is baked when we have settled on its big idea and transformational intent, are clear on how its structure and detail achieves that, and how it needs to be applied through Christ to the minds, hearts, and wills of the hearer.

Decorating the cake.

Some write and deliver their sermon at this point. The problem is that in our weakness this is often not enough, and the hearers go aware saying at best “that was interesting” rather than “God really spoke to me.” So, we need to do more work to make our cake one that people want to bite into.

We do that by ensuring the transformation intent drives our sermon – its introduction structure, conclusion and what we choose to explain and apply. This is justified by the fact that God acts through his word. There is no other purpose for it. It is there to bring about the things of spiritual life – forming God’s people as “oaks of righteousness” who stand firm and display his glory (Is 55v10-11, 61v1-3, John 6v63, Rom 15v4-7). As Tim Keller notes somewhere, this means our whole sermon is application as even our explanations work towards the transformational intent.

So, although our introduction may grab people with a story or illustration, or perhaps with a question the text will answer, ideal is to raise the transformational intent and how it relates to today’s world. In this we are wording the introduction in such a way that persuades people why it is worth listening. This is supported by the example of the apostles. When they quote scripture it is to support a matter already raised. That doesn’t mean we should choose texts to support our own ideas about what needs to be said. But it does mean that when we understand what a text is intended to do, there is precedent for setting up the matter before our explanation.

Although the subsequent talk may be just one point, have points discovered along the way or stated then explained, the body of the sermon will then seek to explain whatever needs explaining in the text to show how it affirms and applies the intent. A study of how all scripture elaborates on and applies the intent will give much wisdom to further deepen our application. And we will then give time with illustrations and examples to showing what this looks like in the day to day.

Just as the preacher “corrects and rebukes” as well as “encourages,” we should particularly consider what false ideas, feelings or actions need to be taken apart, as well as the godly ones to be put in place. This is the “tearing down” and “building up,” the “plucking” and “planting,” done by the prophets and apostles (Jer 1v10, 2 Cor 13v10).  We can note here that the success and impact of Puritan preaching was its focus on just this sort of thorough application. They choose only a verse or two to preach, then as true doctors of the soul, they explained its “doctrine” before giving the bulk of time to dispensing its medicine through numerous scripture-saturated applications. We would be critical of dividing scripture in a way that doesn’t do justice to its natural Spirit-inspired sections and would question people’s ability to absorb such sermons if they are not also published, but the methodology itself is commendable.