Chapter 16: Developing the Sermon

Stuart Briscoe, Pastor

Elmbrook Church

Waukesha, Wisconsin


When W. E. Sangster, the gifted Methodist preacher, learned that he had contracted a fatal disease he wrote:

I long to go into every manse and vicarage in the land and confront men in the ministry with this question, "Do you really believe in preaching as the primary means by which God brings man to salvation, and, therefore, as your primary task, to the accomplishment of which you will devote your best hours and your greatest energies?"

This is a significant question to those of us who seek to minister the Word of God effectively in the midst of busy lives surrounded by people with clamoring needs and endless problems. If, because of secular attitudes and theories, our confidence in the effectiveness of preaching has been eroded, or through sheer tiredness and busyness our enthusiasm has become jaded, then our interest in sermon preparation will automatically have been downgraded. On the other hand, as we constantly refresh ourselves in the Word and relate it to the needs of our world, there should be challenge and encouragement enough through the Spirit to lead us to devote our "best hours and greatest energies" to preaching, starting, of course, with preparation. How should the hours be spent and the energies be expended?

Obviously the sermon starts somewhere with an idea. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones relates how the idea for his famous series of sermons on "Spiritual Depression" came to him while dressing one morning. He said: "All I had to do was to rush as quickly as possible to put down on paper the various texts, and the order in which they had come to me." He did explain, however, that while he had not thought of preaching such a series he had been collecting all the requisite material without recognizing the central idea behind it.

Once the idea has been conceived, the embryo of the sermon will start to develop. The idea will often come from the preacher's study of the Scriptures. A case in point is a series I have preached entitled: "Where to Find Help." This was impressed upon my spirit as I read: "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:16, NIV).

On other occasions the idea will be planted by careful observation of the specific circumstances of the people being addressed, or by concerns generated by events in the culture in which the people live or, perhaps, by traumatic and dramatic happenings which need to be addressed. In all the cases where the idea is not derived directly from Scripture, it will be necessary for the preacher to go immediately to Scripture in order to have something of eternal significance to say. As John Stott rightly asserts: "It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching." He added: "The expositor pries open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed."

This means the preacher heads for the study with the idea to discover what God has to say on the subject. As Keith Price, the Canadian expositor once told me: "I must know what God is saying before deciding what I will say." In the case of my "where to find help" idea, which was based on Hebrews 4:16, I started to read and re-read the epistle numerous times. As I did so I became aware not only of the vast amount of material contained therein, but also of the many different preaching approaches that could be taken. W. E. Sangster in his classic book, The Craft of the Sermon, said that sermons can be classified by "their subject matter—the actual content of the sermon" including "Biblical Interpretation," "Ethical and Devotional," "Doctrinal," and "Evangelistic."

Using his classification system it was clear that the series could be preached as biblical interpretation (Hebrews needs a lot of that for modern congregations), ethical and devotional (Hebrews is full of "let us therefore" passages which cry out for practical application), doctrinal (the "high priest in the order of Melchizedek" holds many mysteries and teachings close to his priestly garments which need careful explanation), and evangelistic (the urgent, "How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" holds its own powerful appeal).

As I meditated on the passages it became clear to me that it would be necessary to incorporate all of the above at one time or another in the series. I did not wish the series to extend beyond eight weeks. It would not be possible, therefore, to cover the complete epistle adequately. Given the key idea, "Where to Find Help," it was not difficult to identify specific areas in the epistle which addressed the kind of issues with which the people to whom I minister are dealing. I began, therefore, to plan out the specific passages we would explore together on the understanding that I would briefly outline the intervening passages to maintain continuity in much the same way that a jeweler concentrates on the pearls without ignoring the string that holds them together. As a result, I worked out the following outline:

  1. Where to Find Help—Cleaning Up Your Life (Heb. 1:1-4).
  2. Where to Find Help—Coping with Your Fears (Heb. 2:14-18).
  3. Where to Find Help—Facing Up to Your Frustrations (Heb. 4:1-13).
  4. Where to Find Help—Dealing with Your Temptations (Heb. 4:14-16).
  5. Where to Find Help—Seeing Beyond Your Problems (Heb. 5:7-14).
  6. Where to Find Help—Handling Your Insecurities (Heb. 6:13-20).
  7. Where to Find Help—Clearing Your Conscience (Heb. 9:1-14).
  8. Where to Find Help—Maintaining Your Faith (Heb. 10:19-39).

Having identified the passages of Scripture we would address together and having also picked a dominant theme for each passage (stated in the title), it was time to begin the work of exegesis. I have on my shelves about ten commentaries on Hebrews; these in addition to such resources as The Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament gave me more than enough answers to the basic exegetical questions—"What does it say?" and "What does it mean?"—which lead eventually to the essentially practical question: "How does it apply?" Or as a youth pastor friend says: "What?" "So What?" and "Now What?"

The "What does it say?" question is answered by attention to the author's line of reasoning, use of vocabulary, and points of emphasis. There are many aids to understanding the text which will greatly benefit us if we take the trouble to utilize them! The "What does it mean?" question may not be answered as simply as some people would like to imagine. For those whose approach is basically "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!" there may be some rude and requisite awakenings when they begin to study—as they must—such matters as the author, the recipients, the purpose, and the date of the epistle. This is particularly true in Hebrews which has more than its share of passages which do not easily yield simple answers.

I write the products of my exegetical work in a notebook reserved for . that purpose, making special notes of definitions of key words and other uses of these words first in the immediate context, then in the epistle as a whole, and, if necessary, in other biblical books. So, for example, in the first message of the series I made special note of such words as "prophets" and "purification," taking time to trace both important concepts back to the Old Testament. This was particularly important because the epistle written to Hebrews assumes much about the recipients' knowledge of Old Testament religion which many modern Westerners do not possess. So we must learn about it if we are to begin to understand the relevance of this Scripture to the recipients first, and then to ourselves.

In passages like Hebrews 1:1-4 there is so much truth packed into a small space that a preacher may be tempted to linger long in its fertile fields. Generally speaking, it is not advisable to contemplate each phrase at length. Granted, since it is truth, it will be beneficial to study it; but there is a danger inherent in this approach. We may become so enamored of detail that we miss the panoramic view which the author intended us to see. This is not to suggest that we should ignore parts of what has been written, but we should give the author credit for having a purpose in writing by endeavoring to identify that purpose and making correct application of it to our lives. The apparent intent of the author in the introduction to Hebrews was to show to some professing believers with a background in Judaism that their apparent intention to revert to their former religious experience and practice was a dangerously ill-advised path to take because of the marked superiority of the Lord Jesus to the various tenents and dogmas of the religion to which they were being drawn.

It was quite clear to me that if the sermon was to carry any weight whatsoever it would need to communicate convincingly the meaning and the significance of sin. In my experience this is not an easy task because of modern man's perceptions or misperceptions of the subject. Craig Skinner has pointed out:

The preacher will be speaking with many who are ignorant of the specific knowledge he possesses. He may address those whose views of religious truth may differ from his, or who may be opposed to him. Any speaker who assumes that his audience thinks and feel exactly as he does will always be wrong.

This is particularly true when the subject is sin. As I looked over the materials that I had gleaned from exegesis of the passage, my attention was drawn to the fact that God had spoken; my immediate question to myself—or more accurately to the Scripture—was: "God has spoken, but what did He say?" The text itself did not give specific answers to the question, but it did say He had spoken "through the prophets" and "by His Son." Noting that the communication "through the prophets" had come "at many times and in various ways", I was drawn to consider in a little more detail the nature of the prophets' communication, with particular reference to the subject of human sin.

Care had to be taken at this stage to avoid becoming too intrigued with what God had spoken through the prophets. It would have been too easy to wander down prophetic pathways never to return to the Hebrews' highway. On the other hand, it was necessary to identify what God said through the prophets concerning His offer of forgiveness with particular reference to the promised Messiah/Suffering Servant and the principle of atonement. Having carefully noted these developing lines of thought, my attention then turned to the second way in which God had spoken: "by His Son."

I addressed the data concerning the Son through Whom God had spoken with a view to finding further answers to the question: "God has spoken, but what did He say?" Two phrases, packed with meaning, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory" and "the exact representation of His being," pointed unerringly in the direction of an answer. It occurred to me that God had spoken about His purposes through the prophets and about His person through the Son. The words "radiance" and "representation," both of which merited further study, conveyed the idea that God had revealed something of His essential nature and person through the Man, Christ Jesus. The twin themes of His radiant holiness and His incredible grace and mercy needed to be explained and proclaimed.

By this time, as a result of exegetical study, prayerful meditation, and careful thought about direction and structure, I was ready to write down an outline. I must admit at this juncture in my preparation I felt like Ezekiel when he saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, "bones that were very dry" (Ezek. 37:2). Strewn across my desk by this time were very many books and notes and scribbled ideas and I was wondering to myself: "Can these bones live?" My "bones" needed to "(come) together bone to bone" with or without "a noise, a rattling sound" (Ezek. 37:7). I began to write down the beginning of a skeleton outline as follows:


"Where to Find Help—Cleaning Up Your Life" (Heb. 1:1-4).

I. God has spoken, but what did He say? (vv. 1-3a).

A. About His Purposes—through the prophets.

1. His desire for fellowship—ruined.

2. His offer of forgiveness—provided.

a. The promise of Messiah.

b. The principle of atonement (see Heb. 9:22).

B. About His Person—through the Son

1. The radiance of His glory.

2. The representation of His being.

Having completed the skeletal structure of the first section it was now time to return to the exegetical notes still strewn across my desk like bones in the valley. I needed a second main heading that would relate in some way to the first one—"God has spoken, but what did He say?" —but which would also serve to develop the theme of the next section. My attention began to focus on the significant statement: "He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." This is a dominant theme in Hebrews, being mentioned on five separate occasions and, as the overall theme of "Where to Find Help" points to "the throne of grace," (Heb. 4:16) it obviously needed to be highlighted.

As I thought about it there seemed to be a certain rhythmic connection between "God spoke out" and "Christ sat down." I do not always look for such connections, but they often seem to jump off the page! Christ's glorious Ascension was very much on the author's mind. It is sad that there is a marked lack of appreciation of its significance today. Even where Christmas and Easter are recognized, and, if it doesn't interfere with Mothers' Day and Pentecost, there is often little interest in the fact that Christ "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." So the question that came to mind was: "Christ has ascended, but what did He accomplish?" A sense of structure and rhythm was beginning to form in my mind:

I. God has spoken, but what did He say? (vv. 1-3a)

II. Christ has ascended, but what did He accomplish? (v. 3b)

To answer that question it was necessary to explore the significance of "sat down," "right hand," and "the Majesty in heaven."

I came to the conclusion that "sat down" spoke of the work of redemption completed in the same way that God rested after completing His initial creative work. "At the right hand" addressed the fact of Christ being greatly honored on His return to heaven after His humiliating time on earth, and "the Majesty in heaven" referred to the authoritative position He now fills. But, and this was very important in the development of our theme, He did all this "after He had provided purification for sins." There were, therefore, two main accomplishments: "He provided purification for sin" and "He sat down at the right hand."

Looking over the sermon developed thus far I noted that I had not addressed a considerable amount of material that described Christ, and I was convinced that if the significance of "purification" (or cleaning up the life) was to be pressed home, it was to a large extent dependent on an understanding of sin which I was not convinced was as yet established. As I thought about this it seemed that if the status of Christ was underlined as described, and a contrast between Him and us could be made, our sinfulness would be shown in sharp relief. So "He appointed Him heir of all things"—the fact that everything, including us, rightfully belongs to Him—was set in stark contrast to our rejection of Christ-rule in favor of self-rule. The fact that He is the One "through whom He made the universe" was contrasted with the pitiful and dangerous self-delusion of the self-made person. The reminder that He is busy "sustaining all things by His powerful Word" clearly contradicts our concepts of self-sufficiency. These stark denials of Christ which are so common in contemporary society are unmistakable evidences of the sin which lies at the root of our problems. Nobody needs much convincing that people naturally prefer the self-ruled and self-sufficient life-style of�