Blood, sweat and tears

Donald Howard shows us why sermon preparation is still a matter of much-needed hard work.1

There is a joy in pulpit preparation—a sense of expectation which spurs us on. But work is needed:

There are those [wrote WE Sangster] who argue that the preacher ought to lose the duty in joy … that a minister should run to his pulpit murmuring within himself: ‘Fancy being paid to do this!’ There is much truth in this point of view … But hard work is collar work—especially at the start! Even a consecrated nature needs at times to be driven.2

At over 80 years of age, Dr Gardiner Spring, a powerful 19th-century American Presbyterian preacher, wrote,

I neglected everything for the work of the ministry … Everything was abandoned for my pulpit ministration …

Not every man, either among ministers or their hearers, is aware of the incessant and severe labor that is called for in the successful prosecution of the ministerial office. He must be thoroughly “a working man.” It is work, work, work, from the beginning of the year to the end of it …

… I began my sermon on the morning of every Tuesday; so that if I finished it by Friday noon, I had one day to spare for general reading.3

Two of the most impressive studies I have ever heard were delivered by Canon John Chapman of Sydney and the principal of Melbourne Bible Institute Dr Graham Miller. The former shut himself in his study for six weeks to prepare sermons on 1 Thessalonians for Moore College Orientation Week, 1963. His studies left an indelible impression upon all who were there. The latter delivered a series on Romans at a Church Missionary Society Summer School a few years later—studies which had an effect on the whole diocese. Each was different from the other in personality and background, but both laid a similar foundation—thorough preparation drawn from a high view of God’s word.

All our life and work is preparation for preaching, but ‘preparation’ in the sense we are using it here involves the actual work of sermon preparation—the task of putting the sermon into shape in order to preach it: the exegesis (a ‘leading forth’) and the exposition. The former deals with the processes; the other, with the results. When dissatisfied with a sermon, the first place to check is our exegesis. Solid exegesis alone provides the foundation for a worthwhile sermon. As we exegete, we see how the exposition will develop. Sometimes we gain deeper insight as to how we should proclaim the message, and change course. This is really the fruit of diligence, rather than a cause of frustration:

Exegesis [says Mark Thompson] is not discovering what the passage says to me. I must seek to answer to my own satisfaction the question, ‘What did the author mean?’ The Bible is not a magic book. It does not say things to me that it does not say to you, and vice-versa.4

Peter has warned that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet 1:20-21).

It takes time for exegesis to yield the exact biblical meaning. Mining for opals at Coober Pedy calls for a descent via a shaft to a machine gouging away at the rock face. Powerful headlights reveal the colour, and the miner then works to retrieve the precious mineral. In like manner, we must be diligent, hardworking and reliant upon the Holy Spirit to reveal the treasures we seek.


The more complicated the subject or passage, the greater the need for solid exegesis. The painstaking study, the increase of one’s knowledge of God’s word and one’s appreciation of biblical theology combine to improve the end product. Questions to ask include: “Who was the author?”, “What was his background and that of his readers?” and “Why did he take this approach?” We must place the passage in its context—not only within the book, but in time and place. The New Bible Dictionary and handbooks such as Edersheim’s Bible History give us a broad understanding of the who, what, where, when, how and why.

Words must always be the main resource for our preaching, but other tools may help underline the spoken message. For example, I use maps both in preparation and preaching. Without a map, were we to say that Ur was in Spain or Corinth near Timbuktu, many would believe us. On the map we trace the journeys of the patriarchs, and tell of the sophistication of Ur and its trade with today’s Indonesia. It was a momentous decision for Abram to cross a wilderness, not knowing where he was going. Joseph’s search for his brothers involved a long and dangerous trip. The reproach of Christ cost Moses dearly when he fled to the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years before another 40 in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4-5, Num 20:2-13, 27:14). Joshua’s conquests, King David and the divided kingdom are vague concepts until we pinpoint them geographically. Maps of Galilee illustrate the Gospels; those of the Mediterranean give understanding of Acts. Maps help to bring the times alive and imprint the Word upon uninformed minds.

A reference system provides information without wasting time looking for something. I have found it useful to keep a folder for each book of the Bible for characters and doctrines. I drop in items as I find them. Indexing the books we read helps us to have the information readily available when under pressure.


There are two possible errors to avoid in the early stages. The first is to read into the text what we would like to be there (‘eisegesis’). As a young Methodist, I was astounded at the verses which could be used to attack the liquor traffic.

The other is to regard exegesis as an end in itself. The end product is the presentation of life-changing biblical truth to a congregation so that the Holy Spirit can apply the sermon to their lives. When Dr Alan Cole was setting Old Testament examinations at Moore College, at least one question would call on students to set out the answer as if preparing a sermon or Bible study. It was good training. A scholastic approach is desirable, but if it’s purely clinical, it will produce a somewhat lifeless presentation from the pulpit with little (if any) practical application.

Over 80 years ago, Campbell Morgan said that the symptoms of weak preaching were “uncertainty and absence of any clear note”. His diagnosis? The almost total neglect of prayerful study of the Bible:

Many have been so busy dealing with it as literature that they have entirely neglected its spiritual note. They read it from Greek and Hebrew, but scores of them leave their theological college utterly unable to pass the simplest examination in the Bible. Many a humble old woman in their church knows her Bible far better.5

This is not an endorsement of ignorance. In my college days, Hebrew was not compulsory for mature students. But after several years in a parish, I read about a preacher who was familiar with his Greek New Testament but who didn’t have any knowledge of the Hebrew Old Testament: he resembled an apparently well-dressed man leaving the pulpit to reveal that he had no trousers! I undertook Hebrew lectures for a year, and have been thankful ever since.


At a College of Preachers meeting in Sydney during the 1960s, Donald Robinson laid it on the line: “The basis of preaching”, he said, “is exegesis. The basis of exegesis is the knowledge of the languages.” In the next paper, Alan Cole gave his total support: “Nothing can take the place of the original text. It can eliminate many problems.”

But it can also create others—two in particular. One is to parade our knowledge by quoting languages. This is more likely to feed our ego than edify others. At St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, Dick Lucas pastored a well-educated congregation, but he barred Greek from the pulpit.

Sometimes it may be beneficial. In a recent series on the ‘Seven Words from the Cross’, I used dipso, from which we get ‘dipsomaniac’—one with a raging thirst. This brought home the impact of a single word. Generally it is better to seek the English version, which is closest to what we want, and to acknowledge the source.

A second problem is that esoteric quotations can easily convince many that reading an English translation is second-rate. John Chapman once warned that “Preachers must not give the impression that people cannot understand the text for themselves”. After all, the Greek (at least) was written in the common tongue of the common man to be absorbed by the common mind. Since the common tongue was interesting then, our common tongue should be interesting today.

While a basic grasp of linguistics ought not be discernible, it does enhance the exposition. When I thanked a friend recently for his analysis of the Greek in a New Testament sermon, he remonstrated that he had not mentioned any Greek. Its use was evident in the clarity and authority with which he spoke. Such authority is displayed not by the preacher parading his learning, but by him submitting to the authority of God’s word. It stems from a thorough grasp of the text, which is strengthened by knowing the original tongue. There is no need to thump the pulpit or raise the voice to produce the effect; the Holy Spirit provides insight during the exegesis, and brings it to bear upon the hearers with supernatural power.

Some years ago, a prominent Australian political commentator paid a visit to a Christian church, and soon afterwards came to faith. He said that the major factor in his conversion was hearing, for the first time in his life, a man speaking with authority. That is how preachers ought always speak, for the preacher is a human medium who presents God’s truth simply, clearly, humbly and with deep conviction, not as his own effort, but as it truly is: the word of God (cf. 1 Thess 2:13). Preaching like this produces eager listeners who realize that their man has mastered his subject and that they are feasting upon the fruit of his labours.

What the preacher delivers stems from his exegesis. He aims to make difficult things sound simple while remaining true to his text. This presents varying challenges. Old Testament Hebrew is an eastern tongue dealing with an alien world at least 4,000 years old. Linguistic and cultural concepts are far removed from our society. There is a quantum leap from a flock of sheep following a shepherd to an Australian on a motorbike mustering a mob of over 1,000 head in a paddock.6 We have to appreciate the ‘then and now’, drawing on what TC Hammond called “sanctified commonsense”.

Biblical theology

We also have to appreciate that preaching from the Old Testament calls for a well-grounded and well-rounded grasp of biblical theology. The books are history—not history in isolation, but history with a purpose, leading us to the consummation effected in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, although the preaching may be historical and moral, it is not truly Christian unless it finds its resting place in the one to whom it testifies. “The challenge”, says David Peterson, “is not to read Christ into the Old Testament but to show how characters, institutions and events prepare for, anticipate and illuminate the significance of Christ and his work”.7

It is true that “what is latent in the Old is patent in the New”, but if this is the summation of our outlook, we implicitly relegate the Old to an inferior position. We are, as John Bright has said, in the Marcionite camp:8 “The Old Testament poses a problem. It is like an unwanted guest whom one can neither send away nor entertain properly”.9 Balanced exegesis rests upon the basis of the organic unity of the whole Bible.

Goldsworthy claims that it is the Old Testament “which provides the vocabulary of the gospel” since the primary truth is that Christ interprets the Old Testament. ‘Grace’, ‘truth’, ‘life’, ‘peace’, ‘salvation’ and ‘heaven’ are all Old Testament terms: “Old Testament expressions guard the meaning of the gospel and prevent it from being abstracted from the real history of man in the world of ideals or mystical inward experience”.10 All this underlines the priority of biblical theology in the preacher’s armoury.

By contrast, Greek is essentially western and the source of much of today’s English. However, differences are many: the critical position of a noun, the changing emphasis of tense, a seemingly innocuous particle giving a different implication, which is an important difference from English usage. Congregations can appreciate the significance of these linguistic implications without being deluged by technicalities. When Jesus asked Mary not to touch him, his words in Greek meant “Stop clinging to me” (John 20:17). This indicates vividly that the resurrected Lord possessed a substantial body. In the ‘Great Commission’, the contrast of participles with the imperative and indicative moods showed the priorities Jesus presented (Matt 28:19). Commentaries pinpoint the interpretations we need, but it is a wise discipline to seek our own answers before we consult them. This frees us to express ourselves in our own words.


Having immersed ourselves in the book or theme over a period of weeks, and after working at the exegesis, we should be ready to embark on writing the sermon, with a clear aim in view and an awareness of our structure.

Many who class ‘exposition’ as dull may have come to this view because of a slavish verse-by-verse interpretation. There is a place for this on occasions, but it ought not be the norm. It should be subservient to the thrust of the passage: the big idea, the big picture. Some avoid dealing with doctrine. There is neither reason nor excuse for failing to show what key doctrines mean. The cardinal doctrines of election, sin, judgement, justification, propitiation, sanctification and perseverance need to be explained fully and understood properly. Always ensure that you know what the Word is aiming at and what you want to say about it. The end in view is that our people will understand the point, meditate upon it and live out what they have heard:

Exegesis [says Graeme Goldsworthy] is primarily the process of discovery and describing the meaning of the text in Scripture. It is part of the total process from Bible to pulpit. In exegesis we ask, ‘What is the meaning of the passage as text?’ In Hermeneutics, we interpret ‘What is the general applicability today?’11

Thomas F Day, former Professor of San Francisco Seminary, expressed it well:

The exegete is satisfied when he has found the exact meaning of Scripture, but the expositor is not satisfied until he has made that meaning clear to others. Exposition therefore has practical ends in view. These ends are defeated when the preacher forgets that his business is not to parade his learning but to expound the Word of God. The finished product speaks for itself; chips from the sculptor’s studio need not be in evidence.12

In practice, there is no clear line where exegesis ends and exposition begins: the one leads into the other, each forming part of the whole. Starting each Tuesday, my aim is to finish exegesis that morning and then work on exposition over the next two days. Thursday sees the end of the ‘hackwork’, even if it means working a couple more hours at night. This programme allows for meditation and review, with Friday morning spent on putting it together.

John Stott allotted one hour in the study for each minute he would be in the pulpit. This may be hard for those with other pressures, but anyone making the pulpit his priority should aim at a minimum of 20 hours a week on each sermon.

Although various themes call for varying treatment, Alan Cole’s eight general principles of exposition deserve our endorsement:13

  1. Reverence for the text: Our attitude to the Bible is the watermark of our ministry. There is no point in expounding if we do not have the right attitude to the Scriptures as God’s revelation to us. Beware of a lifeless bibliolatry.
  2. Understanding the text: A strong feature of Puritan preaching was the comparison of Scripture with Scripture. This is really an acknowledgement that the whole canon is a unity because it is the one word of the one God about the one way of salvation. Place the passage in its context. Understand its meaning. This is hard work for an honest heart. What is before us is part of a great whole, hence the need for biblical theology when preaching from the Old Testament. We must not deal with the passage on its own. After dealing with it in the historical context (the ‘theme’), we must discover its relationship with the gospel (the ‘now’). This puts the passage in its rightful place and provides the basics for present applications.
  3. Experience of the text: This rescues the text from deadness. Unless it has spoken to us, how will it speak to others?
  4. Obedience to the text: It must be part of our experience. It must have changed our own lives and experience.
  5. Faithfulness to the text: Honest dealing with the word of God is hard. But we must not go beyond Scripture.
  6. Expression of the text: It must be understood. Be colloquial. Be meaningful.
  7. Development of the text: This is where our exegesis bears fruit in the lives of our hearers.
  8. Application of the text: Preaching must not be wooden or mechanical. We aim to present people mature before the Lord.

We must continually remind ourselves of our dependence upon the Lord. As Bruce Smith wrote,

If we eventually reach a point where we have ceased expecting the Holy Spirit to act mightily amongst our people with convincing and converting power, the Lord have mercy on our souls!

Why should it be thought a thing incredible that God should raise the dead—yes, even through our poor preaching? Therefore, as our whole ministry must press toward that mark, as it can have meaning and value and momentum only by keeping that goal in sight, so every sermon must have its own quite definite aim.

‘A sermon,’ said Beecher, ‘is not like a Chinese fire-cracker to be fired off for the noise which it makes. It is the hunter’s gun, and at every discharge he should look to see his game fall.’

There is something wrong with a preacher who sends people away with the bemused and puzzled feeling, ‘Now what was that about? What was the fellow driving at today?’14

Is it hard work? Yes! Does it necessitate blood, sweat and tears? Amen! But keep in mind that the Lord is more likely to reward diligence than sloth. Sermons costing little seldom achieve much in the day-to-day lives of our people. If we want to build up Christlike hearers, we must pray and persevere at our calling, that we may be Christlike ourselves.

Then, after doing all that we are able, we are yet unprofitable servants (cf. Luke 17:10). Let us ever wait upon the Lord to bring to perfection those whom he has entrusted to our care.

This is an edited extract of Preach or Perish, edited by Donald Howard and published by Donald and Nan Howard with Kingsgrove Press, Camden, 2008, pp. 131-141. Used with permission.


1 The title of this article comes from Mark Thompson, ‘How to Exegete the Bible’, a paper delivered at Moore Theological College, February 1987, p. 2.

2 WE Sangster, Power in Preaching, The Epworth Press, London, 1958, pp. 49f. ‘Collar work’ refers to the horse’s collar as he drives forward to haul a load.

3 Gardiner Spring, Personal reminiscences of the life and times of Gardiner Spring, C Scribner & Co., New York, 1866, pp. 104-105, 110.

4 Mark Thompson, op. cit., p. 1.

5 Cited by WH Griffith Thomas, Ministerial Life and Work, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1978, p. 101.

6 Cf. Mark Thompson, op. cit., p. 3.

7 David Peterson, Christ and the People (in the Book of Isaiah), InterVarsity Press, Leicester, 2003, p. 12.

8 Marcion was an early heretic who rejected the inspiration of the Old Testament.

9 John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, SCM Press, London, 1967, p. 75.

10 Graeme Goldsworthy, ‘Exegesis’, a paper delivered at Sydney College of Preachers, date unknown.

11 Graeme Goldsworthy, ‘Exegesis’.

12 Thomas F Day, ‘Expository Preaching’, The Banner of Truth Trust Magazine, No. 121, p. 12.

13 Alan Cole, ‘Expository Preaching’, Sydney College of Preachers, date unknown.

14 Bruce Smith, ‘Lectures on Preaching’, Moore College, 1965.

Comments are closed.