?Why would someone spend two or three times the price of an average television in order to have a high-definition, wide-screen set? Salesmen point to the superior picture accomplished by 1,080 lines of transmission rather than the typical 525, resulting in greater detail and better resolution. Buyers simply like the vividness of the picture they get. The answer lies in a single word-quality.
Preaching is more valuable than any modern appliance and demands a commitment to quality. How can we achieve a higher degree of resolution in our preaching, not to compete with the HD television but to communicate the unsearchable riches of Christ? Following are several steps that can lead to greater quality in proclaiming the precious Word with which we are entrusted.
Develop a Three-Dimensional Hermeneutic
Unless we learn to visualize the Scripture, not just read it, we are trapped in a two-dimensional understanding of the Bible. We must discover all three dimensions of the text in order to understand and proclaim the fullness of the Word.
The Holy Spirit inspired real people to write the Bible. Because it is His work, it is inerrant. Because He used people to write, giving God-breathed words through human personalities, we gain greater understanding of the Word by understanding the people involved in the Word.
Homiliticians commonly recommend that preachers know the author, date, occasion, place and purpose of biblical texts. However, to preach in high definition, we need to know more than just the name of the author. Since authorial intent guides the hermeneutic, the preacher must know the person who wrote a particular text. What was he like? How old was he? What had happened in his life to influence him? What was the culture like where he lived and wrote? What kind of personality was he? Where was he spiritually?
For example, when you read Paul’s writings, is it the Paul who claimed not to be less than the chief apostles, the Paul who was less than the least of the saints, or the Paul who was the chief of sinners? We forget that Paul experienced spiritual formation and grew in Christ through the years. Such understanding does not minimize in any way what Paul wrote early in his ministry. However, it helps us understand the man who refused to have a rebellious John Mark participate in the second missionary journey and the elder statesman who asked Timothy to send John Mark to him as being profitable to the ministry.
Similarly we need to understand the other personalities mentioned in the Bible. Epaphrodites. Joshua. Joab. Priscilla and Aquilla. Who were these people? What were they like? What was their culture? How did they dress? What was the typical lifestyle of their community? What did they eat? What kind of personality did they seem to project?
When we can visualize these people as we read, we understand better what we are reading and can more readily translate that understanding into descriptive terms so our congregation can know them, too. To do so requires, as Wayne McDill put it, developing our powers of observation to see the detail of a text.1
Another aspect of a 3-D hermeneutic is to comprehend clearly the timeless truths of Scripture. Too many preachers have a shallow understanding of complex theological truths. Further, they often preach about those doctrines as if they were in Theology 101 at the seminary.
When dealing with didactic and doctrinal passages, the preacher has an even greater need for HD preaching than when handling biblical narratives. Too often we get lost in the theological concepts and forget that even the most intricate Pauline teaching was not isolated from the flesh-and-blood author and those people receiving the instruction. When we can appreciate the people, places, events and settings of doctrinal and didactic passages, we better comprehend the doctrines and teachings themselves.
Robert Smith likens the preacher to an exegetical escort who discovers the meaning of the text in its original setting and applies it to modern hearers, ushering them into the presence of Christ.2 Smith argues that part of the preacher’s dilemma is the “disconnection between traditional theological language and contemporary relevant imagery.” 3
One malady from which average preachers suffer is the use of ambiguous terms and imprecise language to engage complex theological issues. Often they rely on shallow and simplistic catch phrases, such as defining justification as “just as if I’d never sinned,” which is incorrect
theologically and experientially.
Part of the solution involves not so much discarding words like justification as it is in discovering the image of the biblical word and projecting that picture to our people. Similes and metaphors can enhance theological instruction to help the congregation comprehend the richness of biblical truth. When they must rely on rhetoric and logical reasoning, HD preachers will employ precise but commonly understood language to communicate theological concepts.
A third characteristic of a 3-D hermeneutic involves being able to apply biblical principles to one’s life before making application to the lives of the people. While some scholars might argue that application is part of homiletics rather than hermeneutics, I disagree. We do not truly comprehend a text unless we also understand how to apply its truths in actual life.
The accusation of a lack of relevancy cannot be truly laid against the Scripture, but the same cannot be said about some preaching. If the preacher first understands how the truth works in his family relationships and other practical aspects of life, he is better able to show his
listeners how to apply biblical truth to their lives.
Practical processes to aid developing a 3-D hermeneutic include the following:
Get to know the people. When a character appears in your text, get to know him like you would your next-door neighbor. Read all the related texts that mention this person. Study the culture and the historical events of his day. Imagine what kind of person he or she would be. Think about family relationships, personality, stature and other personal qualities. When you know people, you are able to introduce them to your listeners.
Check the maps. The geography and relationships between places help us to understand the people and events of Scripture. The story of a nobleman from Capernaum going up to Cana, begging Jesus to come and heal his dying son, is poignant. However, we understand his
desperation when we realize that he had to travel a day and a half each way, going southwest from Capernaum up into the highlands of northern Galilee to find Jesus.
Imagine his emotion as he left the sickbed of his dying son, knowing it would take three days to get to Jesus and return, not knowing if he would ever see his boy alive again. Think of how the son and his mother felt. Did they beg the dad not to go? Did they hear his words of faith in this Jesus and calmly agree to wait for his return? What emotions did the father experience when Jesus told him to go home alone, simply trusting that his son was healed? He was a day into his journey before confirmation arrived that his son was well. Until we can feel this dad’s heart throughout the experience, we cannot really help our hearers understand the level of faith he demonstrated.
Study the architecture. Living in modern houses or apartments with indoor plumbing and air conditioning, we lose much of the sense of life in homes in the Bible. Only by knowing that the disciples’ meeting at Pentecost may have happened in a porch that was open for air circulation can we understand how so many people outside the home could be attracted by the strange manifestation.
Think about the young man wrapped only in a sheet nearly captured at the garden of Gethsemane. Most scholars believe this was Mark himself. If so, how did he get there, and why was he wearing only a sheet? If the upper room where the disciples set the Passover was the same upper room where they gathered after the crucifixion, then we know it was the home of John Mark’s family. Probably a teenager, he may have gone to bed while Jesus and the disciples moved past the Passover meal into Jesus’ final instructions and prayer. Perhaps the song they sang and the sound of the group going down the stairs woke Mark, and (not having pajamas in those days) so he wrapped himself in his sheet and followed them at a distance to see what was happening. Knowing that houses often had stairs leading from upper floors down the outside of the house might help us visualize the events of that evening.
Consider corollary texts. Only by looking at each of the four Gospels can we determine the daily experiences of Jesus and the disciples during the eight days from the triumphant entry to Resurrection Sunday. We can’t understand Paul’s letters without studying corresponding texts
Ask good questions. I like to ask questions of the text. Not questioning the validity of the text, but inquiring about the text. The journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, how and why can be helpful companions in discovering the details of a text. Often the pericope may not offer specifics. By diligent investigation into related texts and by asking questions of the target verses, the preacher can discover valuable insights. In the story of the woman with an issue of blood, why did Jairus not object when Jesus stopped? His daughter was dying-an immediate need. The woman had been sick for 18 years. Jairus’ implicit trust in Jesus and submission to Him is the only answer.
In addition to developing a 3-D hermeneutic, high-definition preachers will do the following.
Appeal to the Senses
If we limit our preaching to words that appeal to reason alone, we handicap the hearer. People need to see as well as hear. Remembering that verbal communication represents only 10-20 percent of what is being communicated, we need to use vocal inflection and emotional expression to help our people hear and see the biblical characters.
Preachers can aid sensory perception by appealing to memory. Just like athletes use muscle memory to aid skill coordination, we can use human commonalities to appeal to sensory memory. If we want people to experience the stench of the garbage dump that was Golgotha, we can remind them of how it smelled the last time they forgot to take the trash to the curb. If typical, by the next week’s pickup the can wreaked of maggots and decaying food. That memory will actually conjure up a smell that we can associate with Calvary.
The same is true with emotions. Actors often think of personal experiences of pain to produce the tears that touch our emotions as we watch. While preachers should not use false emotions to manipulate the hearer, we can draw upon common human experiences to help people recall how they felt in circumstances similar to those of biblical characters or writers. If we want them to understand Paul’s exasperation with the Galatian church, we can ask them to recall how they felt when, after pouring their lives sacrificially into someone, that person seemed to reject them.
You don’t have to use first-person drama to help the congregation hear the text, although drama is one way to portray characters and interactions. Anyone who has heard the insistent cry of an infant through the night can imagine the persistent plea of the blind man who cried, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Move with Metaphors
Some preachers use pictures, maps, video clips, drama and other visual aids to help the listener identify with the timeless truths of the text. Certainly actual images appeal to the powerful sense of sight; but you can also use word pictures-including metaphors, similes and turns of phrases to illuminate biblical truth.
Metaphors and similes also aid the listener in identifying with scenes, ideas and emotions of biblical events. Vance Havner, R.G. Lee and Chester Swor were masters of the metaphor. Who can hear Lee, preaching his great sermon “Payday Someday,” describe Ahab as “the vile toad that squatted on the throne of Israel” and not have an emotional as well as visual reaction?
Word pictures abound in the text. Don’t study the words in English, but go to the word studies tied to original languages. If you don’t know Greek and Hebrew, use tools like Logos, Bible Navigator, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament. Luke’s description of Lydia’s salvation experience employs a term that means a ship coming into a safe harbor. That analogy can help hearers understand Lydia’s spiritual sojourn from seeker to saved.
Similes, comparisons using “like” and “as,” also produce images in the hearer’s memory. To say that “Jezebel’s sneer bore into Ahab’s pride like a dentist’s drill” immediately resonates with people’s experience and brings them to understand Ahab’s response.
Calvin Miller argues that, “Image-driven preaching has very little to do with our way of preaching and more to do with our way of seeing.”4 We have to be able to see the biblical situation ourselves before we can find adequate images to project that picture for our people.
As many writers have observed before, Jesus constantly employed metaphors and similes to connect with His audiences. He likened Himself to a door, a good shepherd, the Way, Truth and Life. He compared the Kingdom of God to a net, seed sowed, a small mustard seed, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price. We would do well to follow His example.
Depend on the Holy Spirit
Learning to see and preach in high definition does not minimize our dependence on the Holy Spirit; it enhances it. The more we understand about the Scriptures, the larger our task looms before us as we enter the pulpit. The best of our eloquence cannot bring the listener fully into contact with the biblical experience. Too, many of our listeners are, as Jim Shaddix put it, HD TVs without the HD receiver/tuners needed to accomplish the HD experience. Shaddix, speaking to the chapel at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared that in order to get a high-definition vision of God and His glory, we must look through the person of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, only when we preach in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit can we bring the biblical setting into high definition for our hearers. HD preaching is not merely converting the ancient text into images the modern hearer can understand, it relies on the Spirit of the Living God to bring the Bible to life in the preaching experience. Only He can produce the spiritual transformation that is the goal of true preaching.
Guided and empowered by the Spirit of God, preachers can come to the Holy Text with a mind to study, a heart to understand and a voice to proclaim the eternal Message with greater clarity and resolution.
1. Wayne McDill, The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1994), p. 44.
2. Robert Smith, Doctrine that Dances (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008), p. 76.
3. Ibid. p. 86.
4. Calvin Miller, Marketplace Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), p. 88.