Walk north in Cambridge, England upon the stone streets on King’s Parade past King’s College. Continue as King’s Parade turns into Trinity Street as then it turns into St. John’s Street. Look to your left and you will see a black, wrought iron gate and an old red brick building of antiquity. Or take the local double-decked tour bus and the guide will instruct you about the faded red-brick building behind the gate: St. John’s College. She will brag on St. John’s as hosting one of the famous Bible scholars of the ages: Erasmus.
Erasmus’ birth date and name appear sketchy. Born between 1466-9 as Herasmus, in his later adult life he took the adopted Latinized version of Erasmus, “Desiderius.” The tour guide spits out this information in the microphone as you ride the bus with the wind blowing in your face. She passes out information like an instructor in a classroom, detailing Erasmus’ outstanding achievement: his celebrated edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516.
Erasmus’ life, while characterized by intellect and linguistic expertise, might find his best description as wanderer. While Erasmus taught theology in the divinity school of Cambridge and served as its first Greek teacher, he had already been to Oxford, Paris, Bologna, Rome and other places before he arrived at Cambridge around 1509. He left Cambridge in 1514, most likely completing the depth of his work on the Greek New Testament while at St. John’s.
I imagine Erasmus working late into the night by candle light, leaning over an old wooden desk with papyri, paper and his feather quill eagerly splashing into the ink blotter. I imagine him pouring over manuscripts, Greek words leaping off the page as he completed his New Testament edition. One might ask in this modern age, “How did Erasmus accomplish his task without Bible computer programs, fax machines and research resources like the Internet and a cell phone no further than an arm’s length away?”
“And what,” you might ask, “does Erasmus in Cambridge have to do with my preaching here in the freshly charged new millennium?”
Ancient Text?
Preaching today often finds its substance in story or approach or personality. A preacher searches all week to find a moving story to connect with the people. Or a preacher uses an approach like narrative preaching to keep the hearer’s interest. Or a preacher’s personality overpowers the Gospel message so that you remember the preacher but not the sermon. Each method maintains biblical merit.
As one who also likes a good story, who uses a narrative preaching style at times and who likes a preacher to speak with the passion of personality, I do not critique such methods in the round table discussion of preaching. What I fear, though, is that the story or the style or the personality become the starting place of preaching. Why not start with the ancient text?
For preaching to increase in substance and for the Gospel to create light in the dark crevasses of souls in this new century, preaching itself welcomes a return to preparation where preachers dig deep into the ancient texts by candlelight, Erasmus fashion.
Preaching communicates truth. For truth to enter the ears of listeners in the pews and to cast light over the shadows of the heart, truth comes through the medium of words. Ancient texts tell us the meaning of words. The words penetrate a particular historical setting.
For example, the old English word conversation in the KJV does not do justice to Paul’s instruction to the church at Philippi in Philippians 1:27: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the Gospel of Christ….” The more familiar NIV phraseology appears to suffice, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ….” Knowing, though, that Paul uses the word politeuomai (our English word polity) adds color to the dull word conduct. Paul instructs the Christians at Philippi to conduct themselves as citizens. Hearers understood what it meant to serve in a city as a good citizen. The transfer of the meaning implies conduct worthy of the Gospel as a good citizen in God’s polity or city.
Ancient texts create meaning from a given word context. A primary failure in preaching today ignores the contextual meaning of a word. The result produces preaching that throws dim light into the darkness, like shining a flashlight into a huge cave when what you really need is a spotlight. Research takes you into the spirit of the biblical passage, allowing you as preacher to shine a spotlight rather than a low-charged flashlight.
An Old Testament example speaks to the prophet Jeremiah’s peace in his temple courtyard address of Jeremiah 8:11, those powerful words, “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” The overuse of the word peace dulls its meaning in our culture: wild demonstrations where protest marchers plead for world peace; peace as the one thing a husband and wife seek as they receive counsel to save their marriage on the brink of divorce; what a job hunter looks for when he or she seeks a new job out of the chaos and turmoil of their present job. How much stronger to speak of shalom, as more than tranquility but welfare and a sense of wholeness, life linking together in its many facets with completeness. The word became in ancient days a common greeting. A comprehensive understanding of peace flows out of an investigation of the ancient text. Who knows that a story of greeting might not serve as a way to introduce or clarify the meaning of shalom?
Technological Tools
You might wish for Erasmus’ brain about now. If scientists displayed Erasmus’ brain, it would appear as a three pound glob of jelly like yours. It might not, though, connect well with scripted Hebrew or Greek letters or conjugated verbs or the interpretive tools of genitive absolutes and particular parsing, whatever those might be. Then again, digging for gold nuggets in the ancient texts just might be your cup of tea.
Regardless, you do not have to stay in a dark dungeon by midnight candle light to find the preaching gold laboring over hard to read texts (although it can be rewarding). Computer technology, Bible programs like Biblesoft and Internet hookups like Perseus.com, supply you with the tools for research. Erasmus’ brain functions gloriously in your computer, but digging for the preaching gold still requires the diligence, discipline and determination of Erasmus’ late night vigils. Your listeners will appreciate the extra work.
Contemporary Preaching
How does the ancient text influence contemporary preaching?
Maintains biblical balance. Peering into the Greek and Hebrew texts keeps the preacher focused upon a kingdom message and its Gospel orientation of good news. Conclusive study, along with spiritual insight, then allows you to preach with passion sermons which have deep roots in biblical truth-words. Inviting the ancient text to become your late-night friend balances preaching, keeping it from veering too far off the road to personal opinion or soap-boxing on your favorite topic or trying to impress the crowd with a story that serves no purpose.
Improves creativity. I discover that Hebrew and Greek words squeeze my creative juices and cause them to flow. Preaching can be like eating a boring apple or banana, a little taste with not much zip. Preaching which transfers creativity to the hearer is more like eating a lemon, an instant “zing” which increases all the senses. Preaching alerts the hearer’s senses to the crux of the Gospel, the cross, and its companions of conviction, encouragement, and spiritual guidance.
Not long ago, I preached a revival. I preached the Luke 15 passage about the prodigal son. Luke 15:13 in the NKJV describes the son who left home with his inheritance as one “who wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” The NIV uses the words “wild living” while the KJV uses the words “riotous living.” The Greek word asotus means “one who cannot save.” When I preached the passage I described the prodigal as “a rebellious spendthrift who drove to New York, rented a high-rent apartment, bought a red Corvette convertible and was driving down the streets of Manhattan listening to the Dixie Chicks sing ‘Earl.'”
I got the idea from a word study which led me to think about ways we waste money: buying homes with high mortgages, purchasing cars we cannot afford, joining music clubs where we pay for CDs with pointless songs. The word asotos, in essence, painted the preaching picture I wished to portray: a rebellious child loose with no thought of responsibility wasting every penny of his inheritance.
The ancient text and its value add creative zing to preaching. What does the zing accomplish when it lands in the listener’s ear?
Identifies with contemporary hearers. The practical application of the sermon proves the strongest appeal for the Erasmus-method of preaching preparation. If creativity improves description of words to the hearer, then accurate word meanings produce a plethora of applications. Any preacher who applies the scripture asks questions during the application preparation. What doe the text mean today? How does this apply to a single mother raising two children? How does the text speak to families? To bosses? To employees? To teenagers? To seniors? To your congregation?
Application means walking into the word’s past and then crossing the bridge to put the word in its present situation. Good preaching always crosses over from yesterday to today with ease.
Poring over the words of the ancient text begins the process of application long before you actually get to application. It gives pause to specific questions: What does it mean to conduct yourself as a citizen pleasing God in His Kingdom (Phil. 1:27)? What is the difference between the peace offered by so many others (“peace, peace when there is no peace”) and Jeremiah’s offer of peace (wholeness)? What do prodigals look like? How do they waste? What do they waste? What can prodigals expect?
You make applications as the questions find answers: Good Kingdom citizens seek to please the King by honoring Him. Peace comes when God makes our lives whole. You can have peace at work or at home but if you have not experienced shalom your life is incomplete. Prodigals can expect God to greet them on dusty roads where they return broke and broken, penniless and homeless, expecting God’s grace to reach around them and love them in spite of their past.
Application flows from the text to the preacher to the hearer all because the preacher waited by the candle of Erasmus to see what God might say.
Preaching without God’s voice, prayer and study produces sour fruit which rots on the vine. Preaching apart from contextualized word meanings keeps the “dry” in the dry bones of preaching. Preaching minus diligent digging for ancient golden treasure reduces the proclaimed word to shining a low energy flashlight into thick darkness. What hearers often need is a spotlight blasted into their darkness.
Preaching aims for transformation: God’s holy fire purging the sinful heart; God’s holy light renewing the soul so that a person walks a new path for Christ; God’s holy Spirit changing a hearer because His word faithfully preached intercepted a wandering mind. For transformation to occur preachers must announce the Word, praying that it will join hands with God’s Spirit and make friends in the hearts of hearers. Transformation begins with preparation.
Who knows — maybe a candle, an ancient text and God’s light might be all you need to rediscover that marvelous gift of preaching within you. The candle of Erasmus may well be the rediscovery that uncovers the dusty ancient texts of preaching and puts the shine into contemporary preaching for you and your congregation.

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