Practical Hints on Preaching
Choosing and Interpreting the Text
By W. J. McGlothlin, 1917
I. - Choosing the Text.
The method of choosing the text will depend upon the special nature and purpose of the sermon to be preached.
1. It will often be desirable to choose the subject and then the text to suit. The sermon will then be called a subject sermon. In this case the subject should be very carefully stated and its meaning and contents very carefully and accurately defined, at least in the preacher's mind, and then search be instituted to discover a text which expresses the contents of the subject as exactly and as fully as possible. The ideal is to have the subject and the text express exactly the same truth, to be coterminous in meaning, neither expressing more nor less than the other or any truth different from that expressed by the other. This may be impossible,
ometimes, but the preacher should never be satisfied till he finds that text which most nearly and exactly expresses the thought contained in his subject. Thus if the subject is "The Nature of Faith," that text of the whole Bible which most nearly expresses "the nature of faith" should be found and used. The preacher's success in discovering the text which he needs will usually depend upon his knowledge of the letter of Scripture. Books cannot help him greatly; he must know the Book.
2. The preacher may first find a text that appeals to him and then draw from it the subject to be treated. The sermon will then be called a textual sermon, and the object will be to expound and apply the truth of the text. The nature of the sermon will be determined by the content of the text. There are two methods of choosing a text for this kind of sermon. (a) Every preacher should keep a notebook in which he jots down texts that strike him in his daily Bible reading. With the text he should also note down the thought that flashes on him and any ideas that are suggested as to its treatment, illustration or anything else that will assist him to make the sermon when the time comes. Otherwise many of his texts will be found useless when he comes to make the sermon, the point that originally appealed to him having been forgotten. If the preacher will keep such a book he will find its pages very helpful when he is tired and unable to find a satisfactory text for a sermon. (b) He may take up his Bible and tum through its pages or read it more closely till some text impresses him with its possibilities as the basis for a sermon at that particular time. Often a tired or distracted mind will be so quickened by such a process that it will quickly make a sermon of power from a text discovered in this way. However, this method is rather haphazard, and will not suffice as a general plan. It conduces to hastiness of preparation and effectually prevents any consistent and progressive teaching in the pulpit. The preacher should make large and comprehensive plans as to what he wishes to teach from his pulpit for several months and choose his texts with this larger object in view. A series of sermons on Bible characters, or the parables, or the miracles, or a whole book, or any group of related subjects
will greatly stimulate the preacher and help and interest the people.
II. - Length of the Text. The text may be of any length, but it should usually be at least a complete sentence. It may be a part of a verse, an entire verse, a paragraph from a chapter, a whole chapter, or even an entire book. As a rule, a subject sermon will have a short text, and a textual or exposi.tory sermon will have a longer text; but even this will not always be the case. If the text is a passage of some length, care should be exercised to choose a passage that has unity. Expository preaching, when well done, will be found most fmitful and interesting.
III. - Interpreting the Text.
Try to discover and express the exact meaning of the text. Any other use is a perversion of Scripture.
1. Interpret it with the dictionary. Know clearly and fully the meaning of all the words of the text. If the original Greek and Hebrew are known, use them of course in the study of the text. If not, use the best English translation.
2. Interpret it in the light of thc immediate context, that is, in the light of the verses immediately preceding and following it. Frequently a text does not mean just what the words would express if they stood entirely alone. For example, the text, "All that a man hath will he give for his life," must be interpreted in the light of the fact that it was spoken by Satan. Study the context.
3. Interpret it in the light of the larger context, that of the book in which it is found and the general teaching of the entire Bible. Every verse of Romans, for example, must be interpreted in the light of the meaning and purpose of the book as a whole. Saturate yourself with the teachings of the Bible as a whole, and of the book from which you are preaching.
4. Interpret it in the light of oriental thought and customs, religious beliefs, and Bible geography and history. Try to understand the way the peoples of Bible lands thought
nd lived, what kind of a land they lived in, what its history has been, etc. Large sections of the Bible cannot be understood in any other way. Study a few of the best books on Biblical geography, history and customs, and study them afresh in connection with every text.
5. Interpret it with the help of some good commentary if possible. The best commentaries bring all the best thought of the world to the help of the preacher in the interpretation of his texts. If necessary, get some advice in buying com- mentaries, but have some if possible. Use them, but remember that they were written by men and therefore may be marred by mistakes: use them with independence.
6. Interpret it in the light of your own Christian experience. The Bible is a book of religious experience and can be understood only by religious men and in the light of religious experience. Remember that you are yourself the epitome of all humanity, and that your own experiences are a good key to unlock the experiences of other men.
7. Interpret it by long reflection. It is possible to understand every word in a text and all the context and history and geography and yet not understand the text. Reflect upon it; sink yourself into its tmth; think deep into it. This is the only way by which the deeper hidden meaning of the Scripture can be brought up and out.
8. Interpret with prayer. Prayer will clear your mind, purify your heart, open your spiritual eyes to see and your spiritual ears to hear. It will put you in the proper frame of mind and heart to be guided and filled by the helping power of the Holy Spirit. No man knows the meaning of a spiritual text till he has prayed over it. Religious truth is clear only to religious men.
[From Practical Hints on Preaching, Nine Lectures on Sermon Building - a booklet by Professors of SBTS, via E-Text digital, Adam Winters, Archivist. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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