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Committee on Christian Education Feature

Covenant Preaching (Part Three)

Robert Russell Drake

In last month’s installment, I said that my first principle was my awareness of exegeting a covenant document. Now I want to expand on how I do that. If you are a preacher, you probably won’t hear anything new in the steps below. However, it may be an exercise in consciousness raising.

1. I chose a text. Sometimes it’s just the next block of material in the book I’m going through. Sometimes it is a text selected because of a series I’m preaching. (My choice of book or series topic is the result of prayer and my conviction that I and the congregation need to hear it.) In any case, I work my way through the passage, verse by verse, without worrying about making a sermon outline. I just want to know the text. What does it mean? What is God saying?

2. I’ll do word studies. I check the Hebrew and Greek lexicons (I really like Strong’s) and then track how a word was used. This is always great fun. What I find may not always be useful for that particular sermon, but I’ll most likely come back to my findings on another day.

For example, I remember starting with the New Testament use of “mercy” and checking on the usages of hesed in the Old Testament, which is sometimes translated as “mercy.” That led me to Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock. I tried to distinguish hesed from the Lord’s introductory words describing himself as “compassionate and gracious” (Ex. 34:6 NASB; the KJV and ESV say “merciful and gracious”). Together those words “compassionate and gracious” refers to one who caresses and stoops to do so. I wasn’t expecting that. I had to ask myself, “Is this the great revelation of God’s goodness, which would be so overwhelming that Moses had to be protected from it?” It’s like that line in the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns”: “Behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified; no angel in the sky can fully bear that sight, but downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright.” But that had to wait for another day.

3. I’ll look at sentence structure.

4. I’ll compare the structure and theme of this particular text to parallel texts, noting what it has in common with the others, but also how it is unique. For example, I might compare and contrast Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 regarding the image of God. If I’m working with Colossians 3:10, I want to learn from the parallel text, but I don’t want to end up preaching the parallel text.

5. I’ll ask questions such as, “Why did the writer say this, when I expected him to say that?” Using the above example about the image of God, why did Paul speak of just “knowledge” in Colossians 3:10 and not “true righteousness and holiness,” as he did in Ephesians 4:24? Should I just add these characteristics together, or is the reference to knowledge meant to be all inclusive and invoke the new covenant from Jeremiah 31:34, “They shall all know me?” Is that why “knowledge” has a significance place in the Pauline Epistles?

God is not afraid of my hard questions, so I try not to run from them. Sometimes, I’m not the one asking the hard questions. I remember years ago getting an unrequested newsletter from a Jewish woman who had become a Christian and then returned to Judaism. Her newsletter was filled with challenging problems. She had the tone of “Oh yeah, well if Jesus is the Messiah, then how do you explain …?” I got some pretty good sermons from searching the Scriptures to find the answers.

6. I’ll place the words and structure of the text into the context of the book, and then into the context of other books by that writer. If I’m preaching from Colossians, I first try to see if I could preach the gospel using only that letter. You might say that I want to work with the color scheme that that book gives me, to see the particular beauty that the Spirit has put on display. Then I’ll step back and add the other colors: Paul’s other writings and eventually the whole New Testament. But the color scheme, so to speak, is not complete until I’ve put things into the context of redemptive history as a whole. Obviously, the theme of the image of God in Colossians took me back to Genesis 1. That led to an interesting observation about Colossians. After Paul refers to the image and gives its characteristics, he deals with the two topics of home and work, which parallel the assignments to the image in Genesis: be fruitful and take dominion.

So far we could call this the use of the grammatical-historical method, except that I do not take “historical” to refer only to what words meant in the text’s contemporary environment. With reference to the Bible, “historical” has to include redemptive history. Without redemptive history, an interpreter could check the contemporary culture of the New Testament and conclude that “church” refers to individual assemblies, comparable to local political assemblies, as in Acts 19:32. That’s true as far as it goes, but “church” in the context of redemptive history takes us back to the assembly at Mt. Sinai (see Acts 7:38, where the word usually translated “church,” as it is in the KJV, is translated “congregation” in the ESV and NASB). Notice, however, that the political assembly is not completely gone. In Hebrews 12:23, we come to the heavenly assembly and to God, “the judge of all.”

7. As I’m collecting data (and this may even begin with the word studies), I find myself wondering how I would communicate to others what I’m finding. This is where exegesis, illustration, and application begin to blend together. In God’s grand creational coherence of meaning, we understand through analogies and metaphors. That means I understand the propositions of a text through illustrations about the text’s meaning and also by application to my life. I and the other hearers are, in fact, illustrations of the text. After all, we bear the image of God, and thus by our very existence are living illustrations of God. The breadth of life is for this reason at my disposal for opening up a text.

8. From the desire to communicate, I start to discern an outline. Outlines are about communicating. A woman in a congregation I served taught science in high school, and she said I should imagine my outline written in crayon. The point was to “make it obvious.” I thought that was what I was doing, but I’ve learned that my crayons were not always as bold as I thought. No need to worry. I’ve come to understand that people are not going to remember the outline of the sermon. I don’t think they necessarily should. The outline is just to get them through the message from beginning to end. They’ll remember the tidbits that the Holy Spirit pulls out for them, but my thesis and supporting points will probably pass away. In fact, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I really enjoyed that sermon when you said …” and then they say something I never said. What happened was that I said something, and that person, with insight from the Holy Spirit, made an application to his life in a way I never anticipated. And I got the credit! Is this a great job or what?

9. Whatever my outline ends up being, I will make sure I end with Christ.

Let me bring together at least some of the above points using a passage from Colossians. I had been preaching a series on what I called “kingdom proverbs”—short, pithy statements in the New Testament that have a proverbial quality to them and are easy to remember. Part of my study included refreshing my memory on the uses of the word “kingdom.” I was intrigued by the juxtaposition in Colossians 1:12–15 of “kingdom of his beloved Son” and the Son as “the image of the invisible God” (see step 1 above). I envision a sermon entitled “The Kingdom of the Image.” I could already see some world-and-life implications, but I wanted to be sure they were valid. I began working my way, verse by verse, through the text. I had to understand “inheritance” and its relationship to “kingdom.” What did “qualified” mean? (I’m at steps 2 and 3 above.) When I coupled “qualified” with “inheritance,” my mind went to people expecting to be mentioned in a rich uncle’s will and their surprise at not being included. What would have disqualified them? What would they have needed to be qualified? I then moved to a person’s expectation of being included as an heir of God’s kingdom, the person’s disqualification through sin, and then Christ’s work to qualify us. In that little exercise, I think I was exegeting and illustrating and applying—not all at once, but all together.

I knew from other texts (step 4 above) that the “inheritance” and the “kingdom” were equated, but I soon discovered a preaching problem. I wanted to end with Christ, “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14), but I also wanted to reflect at some length on Christ as the image of God. I had discovered that the image theme unites the whole book of Colossians, as Christ is the image (1:15), we are renewed in that image (3:10), and we are given exhortations about what image is and does (steps 5 and 6). My problem was that Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God,” comes after 1:14, “… in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” I wanted to end with redemption through Christ (step 9), so I deliberately saved my elaboration of redemption and forgiveness until the end of the message. The very theme of “image” provided me with that freedom. It is, after all, in the kingdom of the beloved that we have redemption and forgiveness.

My “crayon-like” outline (steps 7 and 8) ended up being:

I. Our inheritance is the kingdom.

II. The kingdom is the kingdom of the Son, the image of God. (Under this point, I could say something about the scope of the kingdom being as broad as the scope of man’s life as image of God.)

III. In his kingdom, we get our lives back. (Here I elaborated on the meaning of redemption and forgiveness as untying us from the law and death, to return us to our role of reflecting God.)

It’s not the greatest outline, and I’m sure that five years from now I’ll come up with a different (better) one. However, the union of kingdom and image will still be stuck in my head. If it will still be stuck in the minds of the people in my congregation, then I will be content.

I’ve told you what I think is gospel preaching, which may also be called “covenant preaching.” I’ve told you the steps I go through, and I’ve given you an example. However, if all you remember is that to preach is to preach Christ, then I’ll be content.

The author is a recently retired minister in the PCA (and former minister in the OPC). This is the final installment of a three-part series.

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