by John Meador
If I am going to go expositional,' where should I begin?" Many have asked this when it comes to making a strategic decision of preaching the Bible expositionally by tackling an entire book. It's a great question.
On the one hand, you want to begin well, and on the other hand you want to be able to finish a book well. You want people to stay with you the entire time, and you want to make sure the book never gets "old" to the listeners. Those are worthy goals.
My first attempt to preach through a book of the Bible (23 years ago) was a fantastic flop. I was convinced that preaching through a book was a great thing, but I wasn't sure how to begin. I was drawn to the book of John and the fascinating variety of "I am" statements as well as the detailed crucifixion account. I couldn't wait to get going. I'm sure I prayed some about it-but looking back, I'm pretty sure I did not pray enough. Or maybe I prayed and hung up the phone-forgetting to listen for the response. In any case, it was less than spectacular.
In the first place, John has 21 chapters. One of them, Chapter 6, has 71 verses! I don't think I caught that. In addition to this, I felt that every "and" or "but' had to have a detailed explanation. My youthful zeal far outweighed my experience or wisdom. All was well for a while and then I began to drown. My main thought became, "how do I finish this thing?"
Gratefully, two men who loved me and the Word approached me and encouraged me to rethink the "preach through John" approach. They urged me to think "smaller" and get some experience before tackling the giants. They gave me life preserver, and I grabbed it like a sinking swimmer. Afterwards, I felt absolutely liberated, and today I take a very different approach than I did the first time.
Now, I begin a book because I am drawn to the message that it has and how powerfully that message seems to relate to the congregation. I read the book enough to know the key themes that come through and become familiar with them. Usually, this requires reading through the book four or five times. As I read, I pray, "God, is this what we need right now? Am I seeing Your Spirit's leadership?" Without exception, I am convinced that God is leading me by the time I say "yes" to a book.
I've also learned to consider the time it takes. I'm a big fan of starting with small books-Paul's epistles or Minor Prophets-just to learn the discipline of preaching through a book. I have to remember that the people I speak to are also being asked to stay at the task, however long it takes. For some, the interest span is pretty short, so a short series, successfully carried out, can sure build a great foundation for future books that have a greater amount of material to preach.
The book of Jonah is one of the easiest books to begin with. Some preach the entire book in one message, but most will need three or four messages to adequately cover the key points of the text. Jude, in the New Testament, is a great small book with a heavyweight theme, but First and Second Timothy, or First Thessalonians may be better for the overall message subjects.
Next, I re-read the book many times-as many as 20-25 times and make every observation I can make on a notepad. I allow the outline of the book to reveal itself to me through the words themselves, and I then allow that outline to determine the number and nature of messages I will be preaching. I actually list those by subject and graph them on a calendar, so I'll see how they fit into the church emphasis and holiday calendar. I want a clear starting point and a proposed conclusion point-even though the journey may cause me to adjust the latter date, it is still good to have an idea of where you might end.
After all this, I begin to study one passage at a time, consistent with the context of the book and I look for the message outline and key points. My first attempt at this gives me a chance to break down the material and name the series of messages. I will make many revisions, but usually I get the theme down in this first pass-through.
Finally, I look for creative ways to name these series and messages. Often, I will use a creative team of laypeople to help me in the communication of the truths I've been studying (I present to them the basic outlines I've arrived at). I never alter the material because of the creative team, but they have often made me approach the communication in a totally different way. I love their ideas! And they are very aware that they have to listen to these messages.
Next time, we'll look at what this will look like when preaching through a particular book and I'll want you to come away with some powerful ideas for exposition. The Word really does make a difference. Preach it!
John Meador is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Euless, Texas.