Psalm 1:1-2 “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! 2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.”
1 Timothy 4:16 “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”
To exegete a given verse of the Bible refers to applying the skills of careful study, observation and (if available) tools of the Biblical languages to “lead out” (i.e exegete) the meaning of the text. Such a discipline represents the floor-level step in beginning to prepare a sermon. The preacher’s task is to lead out the meaning of the text so that the listener can hear what God is saying to them through that text. Certainly considering the work of exegesis from the preacher’s side of the pulpit is a major focus of Paul’s instructions to his young protege Timothy. However, there is the equally important need to cultivate the skills needed in listening and applying an exegetically-based, Biblically-sound, theologically-rich and practically-relevant sermon. The reason I’m thinking on this subject is due to having heard a fine exegetical sermon in a church service my family and I attended while visiting family. In today’s post, I want to offer some suggestions for how one may learn how to listen to and apply an exegetical sermon.
1. Have an open heart to the truth by preparing yourself to listen to the sermon
Whenever a church is committed to solid, exegetically based, verse-by-verse expositional preaching – such a commitment will come out in the musical portion of the service. The songs we sang prepared us for the exposition of the text. Anytime we sing praises to God, we are engaging the heart and the mind in contemplation and adoration of God. Setting our hearts and minds to be open to truth will clear away any distractions. Since exegetical sermons require careful listening and digestion of what is being preached, preparation of the listener in the song service and even in the practice of the Christian life throughout the week is just as important as the preparations made by the preacher.
2. Listen carefully to the preacher’s announcement of his subject and outline of the passage.
Once the preacher has approached the pulpit, two important events occur in the first several minutes of his introduction. First, the preacher will announce what He is about to preach. The preacher we heard this morning was basing his sermon on Psalm 1. In announcing his topic, he noted how Psalm 1 is a Psalm about “first things”, which is apropos considering it was the first Sunday of the New Year. As the preacher commented further, he noted how Psalm 1 is about “two humanities, ways and destinies”. In announcing his subject, the preacher demonstrated how he got his topic by noting the two-fold theme one finds in Psalm 1: the way of the wicked or warnings about going down the wrong path and the way of the righteous or the blessing associated with going down the path of righteousness. Below is a reconstruction of the pastor’s overall sermon with respect to its outline:
Topic of the sermon based on Psalm 1: “Which path are you following”
First main point: Warnings about the wrong path
Second main point: Blessings associated with following the path of righteousness
3. Listen for questions raised by the preacher throughout his exegetical sermon
Questions can function like plows for the soul, since a question is open-ended and demands a response from the listener. In the course of the sermon mentioned above, the following questions were sprinkled throughout the sermon: “Where is my (or your) hope?” ; “What occurs when we don’t delight in God and the path of righteousness?” ; “what does it mean to meditate on God’s word, and why does it matter?” Such questions drive anchoring nails into the boards of the listeners thoughts as they are beginning to string together the words and phrases they are hearing from the preacher and the text. The good thing about noting the questions raised in an exegetical sermon is that they can later on be searched out by the cross-references, textual observations and illustrations given in the course of the message so as to migrate the truth from the mind to the heart to the hands.
4. Consider carefully the textual observations laid out by the preacher so as to connect to the meaning you need to apply
So far we have seen that in learning how to listen and apply an exegetical message, the listener needs to prepare themselves, take note of the preacher’s announced topic and sermon outline and questions raised in the course of the sermon. The fourth area deals with the particular textual details laid out by the preacher. This particular element of the listening process requires careful thought and active-engagement by the listener. In the sermon my family and I heard, the preacher brought out how Psalm 1 intentionally focuses upon great “beginnings” and “endings” by the way the author has the first word translated “blessed” starting with the first Hebrew letter, “aleph” (אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי) and the last word translated “perish” beginning with the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “tav” (תֹּאבֵֽד).
In drawing out this observation, the preacher reminded us that Psalm 1 is designed to help the reader and listener to think about the destiny and path they are beginning and where they are desiring to end. Such observations cause the listener to realize that even in the structure of the text, the intended meaning, once extracted, and lead to immediate and enriching life-practical application.
5. Listen carefully and note cross references mentioned by the preacher
So what is necessary to cultivate one’s listening skills when hearing and applying an exegetical sermon? certainly mental and heart preparation, noting the preacher’s topic and outline, questions raised during the sermon and textual details that connect to application – such skills enhance the digestion of spiritual truth. When we consider a fifth element, we can note the cross references mentioned by the preacher in the course of the given exposition. There are over 31,000 verses in English translations of the Bible. As one either studies, preachers or hears God’s word, certain connections are made between words, phrases and ideas found throughout the Old and New Testament books. The time-honored principle of “comparing scripture with scripture” (i.e the analogy of faith) has been used to make clearer the truth we find in any given Biblical text. In the sermon mentioned above, the preacher demonstrated how the Apostle Paul uses the three-fold formula of “sitting”; “walking” and “standing” in the New Testament book of Ephesians as a reflection upon the thrust we find in Psalm 1:1-3. Such observations solidify in the listener’s ears the unity of the Testaments and the reinforcement of the need to “sit”; “stand” and “walk” in the path of righteousness.
6. Note the illustrations used by the preacher in bringing the truths of the text home to the listener
The advantage of preaching exegetical sermons is that the confidence of both the preacher and listener lies not in the preacher, but in the text and the Christ of the text.
So what is necessary to cultivate one’s listening skills when hearing and applying an exegetical sermon? In addition to mental and heart preparation, noting the preacher’s topic and outline, questions raised during the sermon and textual details that connect to application and cross references, the listener needs to heed the illustrations given by the preacher. In exegetical preaching, the illustrations or word-pictures will serve to shed further light on the text. In the sermon referenced above, mention was made about how Martin Luther had written a friend pertaining to complain about how he (Martin Luther) was experiencing a season of spiritual laziness and coldness. A Luther went on in detail about his declining condition, he then suggests that maybe his friend was not praying enough for him.
The preacher’s point was that in walking in the path of righteousness, the child of God needs the congregation of the redeemed (i.e the local church) and the strengthening means of grace (the Bible, prayer, periodic participation in the Lord’s supper) to fight the war against the internal battles of unholy human desires (i.e the flesh). As I listened to this illustration and then saw where the preaching was going in his sermon, I said a short little prayer that I would not stray from the path. All good preaching will, in all of its points: explain the text’s meaning; illustrate and cross-reference to clarify the text’s meaning and exhort or reinforce the listener to apply the meaning of the text to their lives.
7. See where the preacher connects the text to Jesus Christ
In addition to all of the observations given above, as one hones the listening skills needed to hear and apply exegetical sermons, seeing how the text connects to Jesus is key. Unless the sermon has centered upon and ended somehow with Jesus Christ, neither the sermon will achieve its goal nor will the listener be benefited. As the preacher above was drawing his sermon to a close, he noted the connection between Psalm 1 and Psalm 2. Psalm 2 is a Psalm that points to Jesus Christ as the Messianic King. The life of faith exhorted in Psalm 1 will be incomplete unless it finds its refuge in the Christ of Psalm 2. The preacher also reminded the congregation that as the Apostle Paul had written his letter to the church at Ephesus, he reminded them of having been “seated in Christ in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:6-7). Such connections made by the preacher and noted by the listener will rightly benefit the listener and validate the accomplishment of the sermon’s goal: to get us as fast to Christ as possible.
8. Note the conclusion and final applications
In today’s post we have focused upon how to listen and apply an exegetical sermon. We’ve noted the following elements: preparation of the heart and mind; noting the preacher’s topic and outline; listen for questions; consider textual observations; note cross-references; see how the sermon illustrations connect to truths in the text and note how the sermon connects you to Jesus Christ. The final element to think about is of course the conclusion of the sermon. The preacher quoted both Martin Luther (mentioned already above) and a poem by the late atheistic poet Walt Whitman, wherein Whitman reflects on how he was a man who ended up feeling isolated and unacquainted with himself. The preacher’s point was that depending on whichever path one takes (the way of wickedness or the way of righteousness in Jesus Christ) will determine whether one can discern their place and destiny and how they ought to live for God’s glory. Such skills as the ones mentioned above may aid in becoming not only a better listener, but doer of God’s Word.