When I was in middle school, our pastor preached through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He told us often that Philippians was his favorite book and it showed. He preached through Philippians verse by verse, line-by-line, even at times, word for word. I think we had a sermon once on the conjunction “and.” That’s all I remember about that pastor, not so much the message of Philippians, but that this Pauline letter was his favorite. We were in this 104-verse epistle for several years, minus special occasions like Christmas and Easter and the pastor’s vacations.
A few of my Beeson students come from churches where the pastor decides during the week what biblical text he will preach on Sunday. It is not always clear what the pastor’s reasoning is in the selection process. Some pastors claim they pray all week for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Other students come from churches that preach through the Lectionary. The Lectionary is a daily Scripture reading guide that covers the biblical canon in a three-year cycle. The appointed readings for Sunday include readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament. Some pastors will link all three biblical readings in their sermon, and others will choose one text for the sermon. Most of my students come from churches where they have experienced expository preaching through books of the Bible.
Since preaching the whole counsel of God is a goal that many pastors have, I would like to suggest a strategy that aims to meet this goal over time.
A good place to begin regardless of your church tradition is with the church year and the school calendar. September signals a new school year and a fresh start. We have a nearly three-month period before the first Sunday of Advent. The four Sundays of Advent, together with Christmas and Epiphany, brings us to a new year and a third preaching period that runs until the seven weeks of Lent leading up to Easter. From Easter to Pentecost is a fifth preaching period, followed by spring and summer which can be divided into two more preaching periods. The seasonal periods (fall, winter, spring) can each be subdivided into two, depending on the optimum length of a preaching series.
The year divides into seven preaching periods.
(1) Fall (the beginning of school)
(6) Spring (the end of school)
These seven periods in the church calendar give pastors not only a framework for sermon planning and preparation, but a flexible thematic guide. There is a start-up feel every fall because of school and work that lends itself to embarking on a new biblical study. Advent offers an opportunity to preach from Old Testament prophecies of Christ and New Testament narratives. Sometimes it works to balance Old and New Testament preaching by noting parallel biblical books. For example four weeks in Ruth followed by First Peter develop the theme of God’s people as resident aliens and chosen outsiders. Or, a study in Jonah followed by preaching from the Gospel narratives on Jesus’s relationship to the Pharisees and religious leaders. The seven Sundays of Lent provide a special opportunity for believers to focus on the cross of Christ and the cost of discipleship. This emphasis on the cross culminates with Easter and the celebration of Jesus’s bodily resurrection. During Lent I have preached through Job, Jeremiah, Revelation, First Corinthians, and Matthew, all of which develop the meaning of the cross, the importance of cross-bearing discipleship and culminate with an Easter sermon that focuses on the power and hope of the resurrection. Leading up to Pentecost and beyond is a good time to study the Epistles as well as the Psalms. One year we concluded our Lenten series in the Book of Revelation with an Easter Sunday message on Revelation’s picture of Jesus Christ, the ruling and reigning King of kings, Lord of lords. We followed that series with the Book of Acts. Spring and summer provide ample time to preach from various biblical books so as to convey the wisdom of the whole counsel of God.
Over time expository preaching develops a congregation’s ability to approach and understand the Bible as an organic whole. Each book of the Bible has its own essence or thesis. The substance of revelation is explainable and it is up to preachers to articulate that message in a clear and compelling way. The purpose of preaching is not to focus on the self, but on God’s Word. If the existential self is the preacher’s text, rather than God’s Word, faithful and fruitful preaching is subverted. Preachers who care about the listener are preachers who draw out the passion of the passage for the sake of the listener. The preacher does not set out to impress the listener with his or her ability to “read” their hopes and fears. Whatever therapy a hearer receives ought to come from the theology of the text. The most powerful way to bring lasting value to the listener is to faithfully preach the biblical text in the power of the Holy Spirit. The goal of the gospel is the transformation of the person and the building up of the body of Christ.
Effective pastors interpret and preach a particular text out of a clear understanding of the essence of a biblical book. They discover its DNA and grasp each of its parts in the light of the whole. Moreover, they understand the essence of a particular biblical book in terms of its place in the canon of Scripture and in the flow of salvation history. Faithful and effective preaching has momentum. This pace contributes to our ability to communicate the whole counsel of God. Over the span of two years, I preached from Genesis to Malachi, with breaks for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. I preached through these Old Testament books in their chronological order and entitled the series Stay in the Story. My aim was to show how the biblical text proclaims Christ and my thesis was simple, everybody has a story but only one story redeems our story.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but not all Scripture is used and emphasized in the same way (2 Tim 3:16). Over the course of a long pastoral ministry it makes perfect sense that we preach certain biblical texts over and over again in order for us and the congregation to get our bearings. This is different from preaching from a canon within a canon. We need the whole counsel of God as we keep coming back to the Sermon on the Mount or Psalm 73 or Romans 8. This is the beauty of preaching God’s Word, the Spirit has made sure that the DNA of the entire Bible is contained in each and every text. No matter how deep we dig down into the word we can always find the message of the crucified and risen Messiah.
There is a pressing need for churches and seminaries to preach and teach the whole counsel of God. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, observes that “the contemporary church is awash with spiritual superficiality, biblical illiteracy, and theological confusion.” Moreover, “pastors are entering seminary with less biblical and theological literacy than they had thirty years ago.” Nevertheless, “the theological and biblical challenges those same pastors are facing [are] greater than they were thirty years ago.” Tennent concludes, “Indeed, precisely because we are entering a post-Christendom, post-Christian phase in our nation, there has never been a more urgent time to reclaim biblical and theological thinking and living” (Timothy C. Tennent, The Case for Theological Education in the Post-United Methodist Church Rebirth, Posted: 28 Aug 2020).
God’s revelation deserves our careful attention. We want to resist the temptation to reduce the gospel message to sound-bites and anecdotes and insist on comprehending the whole counsel of God. I can’t help but believe that there are many believers who long for a passionate, in-depth proclamation of God’s redemptive story from Genesis to Revelation.
Dr. Douglas D. Webster is professor of pastoral theology and Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School.