Dude, where’s my map?


A large part of our work to understand the Bible stems from the distance between time and place. Assuming John wrote Revelation in the 90s AD, we are separated from the most recent Bible book by about 1,900 years. Old Testament chronology tacks on a few more millennia.

This separation means that we are not always familiar with the people and places mentioned in our preaching text. Fortunately, biblical scholars have investigated the background of God’s Word for centuries. With a little work and the right tools, we can come to a good understanding of the Bible’s world.

Whenever our preaching text mentions a person or place, it is time to break out the concordance program, Bible Atlas, and Bible dictionary.

If you are still building your reference library, then you can’t go wrong by purchasing the Holman Bible Atlas or the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. The ESV Bible Atlas is also an excellent resource. The four volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition would also be beneficial. Many other dictionaries and encyclopedias exist, but these will give you a good start.

Using these tools is simple, but important.

First, use a concordance or concordance program to look up all the references to a person or place. For instance, in 2 Samuel 11:3, the writer states that Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam. A quick search reveals that Eliam is only mentioned again in 2 Samuel 23:34. He, like his son-in-law Uriah, was one of David’s mighty men. Also, Eliam’s father, Ahithophel the Gilonite, is listed in 23:34. A concordance search of Ahithophel shows him to be a conspirator with Absalom during the time of David’s exile.

These close connections make David’s sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah more heinous. Despite knowing Bathsheba’s heritage, David sent for her. Her grandfather was one of David’s close counselors and her husband and father were two of his mighty men. David admits that his sin is ultimately against God, but he also betrayed close companions.

These facts can be found without going beyond the Bible. This type of discovery is why the first step is to see what God has told us about a certain person or place.

After concordance work, the second step is to consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. These resources contain articles about the persons and places mentioned in the Bible. This step must not be skipped, since many people and places share names. For instance, sermons have been preached about Herod without the preacher knowing the difference between Herod the Great and his descendants. Reading the entries will ensure that you do not make that type of mistake.

To study a location, begin with the same type of concordance search. The second step, however, is to consult a Bible atlas. With the atlas you can discover location, distance, and topography. These details can shed light on the meaning of a text. A person’s travel route may well be an important detail because of distance or changing in setting. The original audience understood the geography. We do not.

After using the atlas, consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about the location.

Since our goal in expository preaching is to discover and communicate the author’s intended meaning, then we must exhaust every avenue of investigation. Understanding background and geographical details is a key step to unlocking the meaning of a text.

What’s the word?


Word studies are a key component in expository preaching.

Notice that that I said “a” key component, not “the” key component.

First, let me offer a warning. The overuse of word studies to explain the text can actually be harmful to your congregation.

This warning may come as a shock, but hear me out.

Always remember that expository preaching involves exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. Word studies are essential to the exegetical and hermeneutical stages of sermon preparation. They deepen our understanding of author’s intent and enrich our knowledge of the Word.

I am convinced, however, that we can damage our congregation’s confidence in their English translations if we spend too much time explaining word studies. If I find that the audience’s basic understanding of a particular English word is adequate to comprehend the text, I typically do not give the details of my word study. The members of the congregation need to know they can understand the Bible even if the preacher is not around.

At the same time, I will go into details about a particular word if it offers a vivid picture or a deep theological insight. In those instances, the information is so enlightening that I would be cheating the congregation by not sharing.

Experience will help you discern when and when not to use word studies in the homiletical phase.

The word study process is a simple one. Think of concentric circles. The inner circle is the word itself. The second circle is the author’s use of the word in that particular Bible book. The third circle is the author’s use of the word in other Bible books. The fourth circle is the word’s use in other books in the same genre. The fifth circle is the word’s use within its testament, either Old or New.

For instance, assume you are preaching from Romans 8:12-17. Paul states in verse fifteen that we have received a spirit of adoption. Adoption is an important concept, so you will need to do a word study.

First, you will need to find all of the uses of the word translated adoption in Romans. Be careful if you are not familiar with Greek or Hebrew. Make sure you are only looking at the results for a specific word, rather than all of the words that may be translated with the same English word. Your concordance or bible study software will show the numbers assigned to each Greek or Hebrew word so you can avoid this error.

Your search will reveal that Paul uses adoption in Romans 8:15 (but you knew this), 8:23, and 9:4. Verse twenty three has the most bearing on your sermon preparation, since that verse appears in the paragraph that follows 8:12-17. Romans 9:4 also sheds light on adoption because of Paul’s discussion about national Israel.

Second, your concordance results show that Paul also uses the word in Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5. The Galatians passage parallels much of what Paul teaches in Romans 8 and can be brought into the sermon for support. Ephesians 1:5 provides further support, as Paul uses adoption as he describes the Father’s role in salvation.

Because Paul alone uses this word, you cannot study how other epistles or the entire NT uses adoption.

The final step in the word study process is to consult word study books. My favorite resource is the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. I understand that a revised edition will be published in early 2015. I am looking forward to purchasing it, even if it makes a major dent in my book allowance.

Other resources are also helpful, such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good foundation for your word studies.

These resources analyze the meaning and background of words. The more scholarly works will discuss the word’s origin and its usage history. If there is any information that leads to the use of vivid word pictures, it can often be found in these resources.

Your observations from concordance searches and reference works will yield a deeper understanding of a particular word. The information may or may not be used in your sermon delivery, but it will certainly shed light on your understanding of the preaching paragraph.

Keep in mind that an understanding of context is essential to word studies. The context of the preaching paragraph determines a word’s meaning, not a list of possible definitions in a word study book. We  have all heard sermons in which a preaching point comes from a word’s potential, rather than actual, meaning. This type of poor exegesis disregards the author’s intended meaning. Our goal in expository preaching is to determine the Holy Spirit inspired authorial intent. To this end, context is king.

One final warning. Do not pronounce Greek or Hebrews from the pulpit. It can easily be perceived as showy or arrogant. Your people are not concerned with how to pronounce huiothesia. Instead, they need to know why it is such good news that they have been adopted.

Structural Analysis or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enter Key

Sermon preparation involves moving from the big picture, to the smallest detail, and then back to the big picture. We move from the forest, to the trees, to the leaves, to the trees, to the forest.

In expository preaching, our study moves from paragraph, to phrases, to words, to phrases, to paragraph. A structural analysis, or paragraph flow, allows us to see how these three elements work together.

I have developed the rules and methods I describe over ten years. I was first taught structural analysis in my seminary sermon building class, during my first year at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the next two years of my M.Div. work, I revisited the idea in Hermeneutics and second year Greek. I appreciate the teaching of Jere Phillips, Ken Easley, and John Mahony regarding this step. I have come to rely so heavily on it that I cannot study a passage without it.

A structural analysis breaks apart a preaching paragraph through the use of separate lines and indentations. I begin each new sentence at the left margin. I then break each sentence apart by moving phrases to another line and indenting under the previous sentence section. Trust me, it is easier to do than explain. Below is an example from James 1:2-4.


James 1:2–4 (NASB95) —

2 Consider it all joy,

        my brethren,

                when you encounter various trials,

                                3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.


4 And let endurance have its perfect result,

        so that you may be perfect and complete,  

                lacking in nothing.


These two verses are a simple example. Commas indicate when to separate clauses.

When I look at the structural analysis, I understand it as a series of questions and answers.

Consider what all joy? Consider encountering various trials as joy. Why? Because those trials produce endurance. What is the purpose of endurance? Its purpose is to perfect and complete us. What does it mean to be perfect and complete? It means to lack in nothing.

At this point, I am just beginning to study. It is okay that I might not understand the answers to the questions. But, I know what I need to find out.

Admittedly, this step can be performed mentally rather than manually. However, I find that seeing the text’s structure brings out the meaning for me.

Also, it provides a practical way to organize my study notes, as the picture of my structural analysis from James 1:22-27 shows. This paragraph presented no difficulties, but it does give you an idea of how I use this method to organize my study.



My analysis of James 2:22-27, with study notes

My analysis of James 2:22-27, with study notes



This method works with all scriptural genres, with each presenting unique challenges.

Wisdom literature often uses parallel language. Notice my approach to Psalm 1:1


Psalm 1:1 (NASB95) —

1 How blessed is the man who does

        not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

        Nor stand in the path of sinners,

        Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!


The psalmist offers three descriptions of the blessed man. Each description could stand alone and, therefore, deserves equal study and presentation. By indenting each segment in parallel, I have represented the author’s intended meaning visually.

Narrative texts contain dialogue. My rule for discourse is to begin each sentence of dialog on the left margin. I keep the speaker’s statement together by not spacing between his or her sentences. Here is an example from John 3.


John 3:1–15 (NASB95) —

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees,

        named Nicodemus,

                a ruler of the Jews;

                        2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him,


        we know that You have come from God as a teacher;

                for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”




3 Jesus answered and said to him,



        I say to you,

                unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”




4 Nicodemus said to Him,

“How can a man be born when he is old?

He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born,

        can he?”




5 Jesus answered,



        I say to you,

                unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,

and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you,

        ‘You must be born again.’

8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it,

        but do not know where it comes from and where it is going;

                so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”




9 Nicodemus said to Him,

“How can these things be?”




10 Jesus answered and said to him,

“Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?

11 “Truly,


        I say to you,

                we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen,

                        and you do not accept our testimony.

12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe,

        how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

13 “No one has ascended into heaven,

        but He who descended from heaven:

                the Son of Man.

14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

        even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;

                15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.


Several things are happening in my analysis of this paragraph. First, I have separated Jesus’ and Nicodemus’ dialogue by several spaces. This separation makes clear the conversation’s flow. Second, within the separate dialogues, I have not divided the individual sentences with spaces between lines. I can view each reply as a unit. Also, I have placed several phrases in parallel, such as the beginning of verses 3, 5, 11 and the two clauses of verse 6.

Structural analysis is as much an art as a science. At times, you will not agree with the translator’s punctuation. That is okay. Go with your opinion, but be open to changing it as you continue your study.

This method works for English, Greek, or Hebrew. But, you must use a literal English translation to experience the full benefits.

The only way to learn structural analysis is to practice. I suggest, if you are not currently using this tool, to copy and paste your preaching text into a word processing document and begin punching the enter and tab keys where you think you ought. Try it with the examples I have given and compare the results. This step is key for me. I hope it is as helpful for you.

Reading the Text

Sermon preparation begins by reading the text. While this sounds logical, my tendency is to proceed to paragraph flow/structural analysis before taking the time to read the text carefully. Reading the paragraph, however, is vital to interpretation.

My approach is to read the preaching text in several versions, moving from literal translations to paraphrases.

I begin by slowly reading through the text in the New American Standard Bible, my preaching translation. Next I read the King James Version, followed by the New King James Version, the English Standard Version, the New International Version (1984), and the New Living Translation. You may also want to include the Holman Christian Standard Bible (literal) and The Message (paraphrase).

I follow this method for two reasons.

First, the majority of the members of my church use these translations. If there is a major difference in the versions, I need to address it as I preach.

Second, reading in this order helps to catch the rhythms and divisions of the text. As I move from literal to paraphrase, I can see how the translators shorten paragraphs and sentences. I can observe their translation decisions. These two elements help to bring out the text’s meaning.

It is vital that you do not hurry when reading your text. Relax and read slightly aloud. By the time you finish, you will have a good feel for the text’s flow.

Also, I encourage you to preach from a literal translation. A major element of expository preaching is explaining the meaning of words and phrases, and the nuance of verb tenses. Paraphrases, or the NIV’s dynamic equivalence, can obscure individual words for the sake of readability. Bring these versions into your sermon when they shed light on the passage, but avoid using them as your preaching translation.

I recommend preaching from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), or the New King James Version (NKJV).

I realize that your ministry context may require using the King James Version. If it is an issue, it is not worth offending your congregation by not preaching from the KJV. The King James’ endurance testifies of its excellence. But, with some archaic language and syntax, the KJV can be confusing. A current translation, based on the same word-for-word principles as the KJV, allows the entire congregation to understand the text more easily.

One final word on translation choice. You will know you are doing a good job of explaining the text when people begin to purchase new Bibles. I love when church members call from a Christian book store to make sure they are buying the correct version. If I was not walking through the text and explaining the meaning of the words and phrases, then neither my version nor theirs would matter.

Balancing the week


Sermon preparation combines three disciplines: exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. Our job as pastors is to learn the most effective and efficient methods for these disciplines.

Pastoral ministry includes more than preaching. For instance, it is very important to the church I serve that I visit members in the hospital. Hospital visitation and prayers before surgery are vital to my ministry. It is one of the key ways I show the congregation that I care. If I slacked in this aspect of ministry, then the people would not be receptive to my preaching. If you don’t shepherd the flock on Monday through Saturday, you can’t speak with any influence on Sunday.

Every church’s expectations are different. What we must do is determine how to allot our time so that we shepherd with integrity, while also putting in the seat time to prepare quality sermons. The personal side of pastoring is just as important as the teaching component. Balance is key.

To achieve balance, we must know exactly what we are setting out to accomplish. We need a plan to know if we are on schedule.

I am off on Fridays, so my sermon preparation is based on a Monday through Thursday schedule. I know what I need to accomplish each day to be on schedule for Sunday. Make no mistake. Sunday is coming. Whatever happens during the week, you must be ready to explain, illustrate, and apply your preaching text for the congregation.

I’ve developed the week I describe by learning the ebb and flow of my church. Your ministry context will determine your week.

For me, Monday is exegesis day. My goal is to complete my structural analysis, word studies, map and dictionary work, and whatever other study methods I need to use.

Tuesday is commentary day. I read the exegetical and expository commentaries I have collected for my chosen text.

Wednesday is hermeneutics day. I call it “What’s the point Wednesday.” This day is key. I sum up the main idea of my preaching text with three sentences. The first, the historical theme sentence, describes the text’s meaning in past tense language. The second, the contextual theme sentence, alters the previous sentence into a present tense universal statement. The third sentence, the sermonic theme sentence, retools the second statement into the “point” to be presented to the congregation. Once I develop these sentences, I work through an application worksheet, think through my conclusion and introduction, and decide on possible illustrations.

Thursday is sermon notes day. Over the years, I’ve developed personal formatting so that I can glance at my notes and easily find information. My goal is to limit my notes to one landscaped page divided into two columns. If I need more information, I write within the text of my Bible.

When I leave the office on Thursday afternoon, I try not to think about my sermon again until Saturday morning. Because I have small children, I wake up early on Saturday morning to review my morning and evening sermons. I sit in front of my laptop and, basically, preach my sermon to myself. Very low volume of course. Donna and the girls do not need to wake up to a gospel invitation every Saturday morning. As I preach, I edit my notes.

On Sunday morning, I wake up and go over my morning message again before printing my notes. By breakfast time, I’m ready to preach. On Sunday afternoon, I review my notes for the Sunday evening sermon.

What I’ve described is an ideal week for sermon preparation. As a general rule, you should plan so that you remain on schedule while spending half of your day studying and half of your day ministering personally to the congregation.

So, what happens if you fall behind? Either stay up late or get up early. Do not take evenings away from your family to study. Church emergencies may occur and require your presence. That is okay. It is part of the calling. But, you have control over your study time. Take advantage of the control.

Most weeks you will be able to stay on schedule. I have found that unusually busy weeks typically require only one late night or early morning to catch up.

Once you develop your schedule, you will always know if you are ahead or behind. You will have time to be with the congregation and your family, while also sharing good content on Sunday.

The Wonderful World of Files and Records



Before you begin sermon preparation, decide how to keep track of your sermons and series.

With a business background, I am comfortable using Microsoft Excel for record keeping. Whatever system you use, you will need to make sure that it is easily accessible and logically organized.

First, you need to create a record system for your entire preaching and teaching ministry. For this step, I have a single Excel file with several tabs. My current file includes worksheets for each year’s preaching from 2007 through 2015 (June or July is a good time to begin thinking about next year). The file also contains the following worksheets: tithing verses (I read these before we take up the offering), baptisms, weddings, funerals, Sunday school (what class I substituted for and what I taught), Easter sermons (for quick reference when planning), sermons by invitation, and ordination councils.

My yearly preaching worksheets are divided between Sunday morning and Sunday evening. I include the date, preaching text, and location.

Below is my worksheet for the morning services of the first quarter of 2014.  The spreadsheet also contains a column for Sunday evening. You will notice that on 3/2 and 3/23 I list a guest preacher. For the purpose of this blog I have removed the names, but on those Sundays I was out of the pulpit because of illness and vacation.

Morning Service
Date Text Location
1/5/2014 John 1:1-5 Meridian
1/12/2014 John 1:6-13 Meridian
1/19/2014 John 1:14-18 Meridian
1/26/2014 John 1:19-34 Meridian
2/2/2014 John 1:35-51 Meridian
2/9/2014 John 2:1-12 Meridian
2/16/2014 John 2:13-25 Meridian
2/23/2014 John 2:23 -3:15 Meridian
3/2/2014 Guest Preacher Meridian
3/9/2014 John 3:16-21 Meridian
3/16/2014 John 3:22-36 Meridian
3/23/2014 Guest Preacher Meridian
3/30/2014 John 4:1-30, 39-42 Meridian

By keeping these records, I can see what I have preached every Sunday since 2007. I began pastoring in 2004, but I did not create the this system until later. As you’ll see below, I could recreate those years through the individual sermon file names. But, I would rather not think about those early sermons. Cringe worthy stuff, better forgotten.

Once your overall system is set up, the second step is to name and categorize your individual sermons.

I do all of my sermon preparation in Microsoft Word, so these instructions will be PC, rather than Mac, friendly.  Whatever operating system  you use, the principles remain the same.

First I created a folder titled “Sermons.” Within that folder, I have subfolders for each book of the Bible. In those subfolders, I’ve created further subfolders for individual sermons and sermon series.

Within the individual sermon folder, I create two files. The first I call “sermon prep.” This document contains my structural analysis, study notes, and sermon application form. The second file contains my pulpit notes. I name this file according to date, location, and time of day.

This past Sunday I preached from James 1:12-15. To retrieve the sermon notes I would go to my “Sermons” folder, to the “James” subfolder, to the “James SEP 2014” subfolder, to the “James 1:12-15” subfolder, to the file “Sermon Notes 6-29-2014 MBC Morning.”

This system may seem overly detailed, but it allows me to find files quickly. While I make it a practice not to re-preach sermons at my church (If I revisit a text, I work from scratch), I will reuse sermons when invited to preach for another group.

These suggestions are simply that—suggestions. Whatever system you use, make sure that you use it. You will save time later by organizing now.

Choosing and Analyzing a Book of the Bible

I am convinced, through research and experience, that systematic expository preaching (SEP) is the best approach to pastoral preaching. Since a pastor addresses the same congregation each week, he must be able to find consistently fresh material. Preaching through Bible books, or extended sections of Scripture, provides that freshness.

If you have committed to SEP, or are thinking about it, what is your first step? In this case the simple answer is the correct one. You must choose what Bible book to preach.

You may choose a book or extended section of scripture for several reasons.

First, you may choose based on preference. If your favorite book is Colossians, then preach through it.

Second, you may choose based on needs. There are times in your church’s life when certain books need to be preached. A hurting church would benefit from John’s Gospel. Its intimate portrayal of Christ encourages believers by deepening their understanding of the Savior.

God has entrusted your congregation to you. Pay attention to what they need.

Third, you may choose based on balance. For instance, assume you did preach through Colossians. Consider a narrative book or section as a follow-up.

Most importantly, prayer informs each choice. Sometimes there is no clear reason for choosing preaching material, other than a sense of God’s will for your pulpit ministry. Never ignore this insight.

Once you know what to preach, begin your content and background analysis.

To analyze the book, you will need to do two things.

First, read and outline the contents. Read the book several times and adjust your outline as you reread. Reading several versions can help you to see the natural divisions of the text. Outline the book into preaching units. You will outline the individual preaching units later, as you preach through the book.

The outline, however, is only a guide. My experience is that my outline grows as I preach the series. A few years ago, I preached through Ephesians in twenty six sermons. I initially planned twenty.

Second, using standard journalistic questions, prepare a background study of the book.

To do the background study, you will need to gather a few materials: New or Old Testament surveys, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries.

Most pastor acquire surveys and dictionaries early in ministry. Be sure to update every few years, as new scholarship is published.

Commentaries are trickier. In fact, you may be thinking that it is too early in the process to talk about commentaries. I recommend, however, that commentaries be bought as soon as you decide what to preach. Ask former seminary professors for opinions on the best commentaries for your chosen book. Several commentary surveys exist. Purchase copies and update with new editions.

Acquire three to five commentaries for the book being preached, focusing on exegetical and expository works. Commentaries written by popular preachers are a product of their pulpit ministry. You, however, are able to write your sermons according to your gifting and for your congregation. You can do what these popular preachers have already done, but your version is authentic to you.

Once you gather your material, focus on five questions: who, where, when, why, and what.

First, who wrote the book and to whom did the author write?

Second, where was the book written and where was it sent?

Third, when did the author write the book?

Fourth, why did the author write the book?

Fifth, what did the author write? You have already answered this question as you outlined the book.

Your gathered materials discuss each of these questions. I recommend you produce a bullet point document with these facts. There is no need to write in the form of a research paper. It is for your use and should be quickly readable.

Also, as you study, look for the book’s main theme. Pay attention to key passages. Get to know the book’s flow. The author wrote with a purpose. Try to discover it.

After completing your outline and background study, you are almost ready to begin preparing the first sermon.

The only thing remaining is how to organize your records. The next post will discuss the exciting world of spreadsheets and file names.


Welcome to my new page—How Shall They Hear?

This blog is devoted to a practical approach to systematic expository preaching (SEP). It will discuss all aspects of preaching, with the busy pastor in mind.

I’m convinced that most of pastors graduate from seminary determined to be sound biblical preachers. As someone who has been on both sides of the lectern, I believe that the seminary classroom is invaluable to the preacher. We’ve studied exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. We immersed ourselves in theology and biblical studies. We have even survived the gut wrenching experience of having our preaching critiqued in the classroom.

Armed with knowledge and confidence, we accept our first church and begin shepherding. But, somewhere along the way, the grind of daily ministry erodes our dedication to the heavy lifting required to rightly divide the Word of truth. My goal is to remind and rejuvenate you, my readers, and myself. We will discuss the basics of sermon preparation, but with an eye toward the reality of the pastorate.

My plan for this page is to address the steps of sermon preparation one post at a time. Naturally, I will be explaining my own approach to preaching. The details of my method have varied since I began pastoring in November 2004, but my overarching strategy has not. I preach through books and extended sections of the Bible. If you are not a practitioner of SEP, then my hope is that this blog will convince you to give it a try. If you already use this method, then I pray you are encouraged.