Jon Krakauer cleared the ice from his oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and straddled the summit of Mount Everest. It was 1:17 P.M. on May 10, 1996. Krakauer, an accomplished climber and journalist, had not slept in fifty-seven hours. He had not eaten much more than a bowl of ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms in three days. Still, he had reached the top of the earth's tallest peak — 29,028 feet. In his oxygen-deprived stupor, he had no way of knowing that storm clouds forming below would turn into a vicious blizzard that would claim the lives of five fellow climbers. Yet he knew his adventure was hardly finished. In his book Into Thin Air, Krakauer describes what he felt:
Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation; against long odds, after all, I had just attained a goal I'd coveted since childhood. But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was extinguished by the overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.1
David Breashears, the first American to scale Everest twice, concurs and offers this counsel to climbers: "Getting to the summit is the easy part; it's getting back down that's hard."2
In this respect, the adventure of preaching Old Testament narratives resembles an Everest expedition. Arriving at the exegetical summit with the author's intended meaning is the easy part. It's getting back down to deliver the goods to the congregation that's hard. When the journey from text to concept is completed, preachers may feel a rush. There's a thrill and a sense of satisfaction that accompanies understanding what the author means. But this summit is only the halfway point. A demanding journey lies ahead as the preacher moves from concept to sermon.
The difficulty of the descent from concept to sermon calls for increased fervency in prayer. Preachers should continue to saturate their labors with prayer. The summit or halfway point in the process is a good time to pause and worship God for who he is and what he has done. A careful study of the story will have yielded new or fresh insights about God's person and work that should move a preacher to praise. Then, throughout the descent, preachers will need to pray through issues such as how the story applies to a believer's life and what communication strategies will work best when preaching the story to a particular congregation. The descent from concept to sermon is no time for a preacher's prayer life to wane.
The ensuing chapters will explore the stages of sermon development as the expositor descends from concept to sermon. The next three stages may be the most difficult in the entire process because they involve a high level of thinking. In some ways, I find them harder than studying the narrative text in Hebrew. Once you know what you're doing in Hebrew, the work is fairly objective. However, these stages require synthesis — putting back together what you've taken apart in analysis — and a more abstract type of thinking. As difficult as these stages may appear, they will make the difference between a mediocre sermon and a superb one.
Thought develops in one of three basic ways. Aside from restating a concept, you can either explain it, validate it, or apply it. For example, during my childhood years in central Illinois, I remember my parents and school teachers frequently communicating a particular concept during May and June: Our county is under a tornado warning.
The idea might require further explanation. I could ask, "What does this mean?" My mother or teacher would explain that a tornado warning means someone has spotted a funnel cloud in our region. It differs from a tornado watch in which a funnel cloud has not been seen but weather conditions are ripe for a tornado to appear. In this instance, a farmer spotted a funnel cloud about six miles east of our town. Furthermore, the warning took effect fifteen minutes ago and will continue for the next two hours.
In addition to requesting explanation, I may demand validation. I could say, "Give me some proof. I'm not sure I believe your report that our county is under a tornado warning." My mother or teacher would then validate the idea by divulging the source of their information: they heard it on WMBD, our local radio station. They might describe how two eyewitnesses — a doctor driving home from her office and a UPS driver making his rounds east of town — corroborated the testimony of the farmer who first identified the funnel cloud.
Once I understand the idea and accept its legitimacy, then my concern will turn to applying it. I may ask, "What difference does this make? How should I respond?" My mother or school teacher would reply, "You need to go to the basement. Sit cross-legged against the east wall, tuck your head in between your knees, and cover your neck with your hands. Wait there until the radio reports that the tornado warning has been lifted."
Thought develops the same way in Bible texts and in preaching Bible texts. As a Bible expositor, you will now take the exegetical idea of your passage and submit it to three developmental or functional questions (see table 8.1) that probe the dimensions of understanding (explanation), belief (validation), and behavior (application). You will analyze both the text and your audience with these questions. You will begin by asking, Did the author develop his point by explaining, proving, or applying? Then you will ask, Will my audience respond to this idea by saying, "Explain it, validate it, or apply it"? Notice that these questions appear in sequential order since we're dealing with how thought forms. You cannot prove or validate what people do not understand. You cannot apply what people do not accept.
The Three Functional Questions
1. Explanation — What does it mean?
2. Validation — Is it true? Do I believe it?
3. Application — So what? How then should I live?
The payoff for wrestling with thought at this level is understanding how the writer of an Old Testament narrative developed his thought. In telling a story, a writer communicated a point. This writer may have presented the story in a way that explained, validated, or applied the idea. He may have focused on one particular dimension or on all of them. Not only will you understand how the writer developed his thought, but you will possess a better idea of how you should develop the thought of the text in light of your particular audience. Let's look at the questions in more detail.
The first functional question zeroes in on explanation. It asks, What does it mean? When preachers bring this question to a biblical text, they are asking, Is the author of this text developing his thought primarily through explanation? Is the biblical writer telling the story in a manner that answers the question, What does it mean?
For example, the story in
An expositor will also ask the functional question, What does it mean? in relationship to the audience. When presented with the sermon's big idea, would the audience say, "I don't understand"? Would they respond by saying, "Explain that, please" or "What does it mean?" Furthermore, are there elements in the story that may not make sense to a modern audience? Modern audiences are as familiar with siege warfare as ancient audiences were familiar with ATM machines. Modern audiences may have questions about customs, geography, theology, and language that an ancient storyteller would assume the audience knew. An expositor who preaches the story of Ruth may have to explain:
- The meaning of names like Elimelech, Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and Obed
- The theological implications of leaving the land of Israel for Moab
- Who the Moabites were and why Israel despised them
- The plight of a childless widow in Israel
- The kinsman-redeemer concept
- The custom of allowing the poor to glean at the edge of the field
- How much an ephah of grain equals — a small or large amount?
- What the expression "loyal love" (Hebrew, hesed) means
- The significance of Ruth uncovering Boaz's feet
- Why Boaz sat at the town gate and what the town elders were doing there
- The sandal-removal ceremony (even the writer explains this one!)
Obviously, the expositor doesn't want to turn the sermon into an exegetical lecture. Maybe a sentence of explanation will do for some of the details. Perhaps it will require a couple minutes of the sermon to explain the custom. But preachers must wrestle with what features of the story need explanation as well as how much explanation they will require.
The second functional question focuses on validity. It asks, Is it true? In other words, Can I believe it? When directed to Old Testament narrative, this question asks, Did the biblical author tell this story to validate a particular idea or prove a point?
This second functional question lies behind the books of Kings. The writer of Kings crafts his account to argue that God's judgment is just. Israel and Judah got what they deserved. To an audience that thought, "I don't buy the idea that we deserved the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem," the books of Kings argue, "Your history proves that you deserved this form of God's judgment."
The section running from 1 Samuel 15 to 2 Samuel 8 resembles a dynastic defense which, in the ancient Near East, defended the replacement of one dynasty with another. The writer anticipates people saying, "I'm not sure I buy the idea of David replacing Saul as king. Prove to me that this was a legitimate move." This section of Samuel, then, validates David's fitness to be king as well as Saul's unworthiness to serve as Israel's king. Similarly, the story in 1 Kings 3:16-28 has a validating function. It tells of two prostitutes who came to King Solomon with a dispute over the maternity of a baby and proves that Solomon did receive wisdom from Yahweh as the previous narrative in 3:1-15 claims.
The second functional question should be directed to the audience as well as the text. Once listeners grasp the meaning of a text and its components, they may ask, Is it true? Can we believe this? Certainly, people who take the Bible seriously value an acceptance of its truth claims. We loudly affirm, "God says it, I believe it, that settles it." Still, we struggle with emotional and intellectual doubts. We want to believe, but we need reasons or proofs. Haddon Robinson contends that this second functional question concerning validation is the dominant question of modern audiences. I once heard him comment, "C. S. Lewis is still popular today because he is the master of the second functional question."
At first, the second functional question may intimidate preachers. Why stir up more controversy in your listeners' minds? Controversy creates tension, and tension creates an interest factor. Controversy forces people to wrestle with thought at a deeper level, beyond the pat answers. The second functional question, then, turns out to be a friend, not a foe.
Skilled preachers look for tension in a text and then use it to hold interest. Often, the more controversial passages are easier to preach, at least in terms of holding your listeners. For example, in a sermon on the book of Esther, you might raise a question that your audience is thinking: How can I really be sure that God is working in my life when 1 can't see or hear him? Suppose your big idea for Esther is, Even when you can't see or hear God, he is still in control of your destiny. When confronted with that idea, a listener might respond, "Is it true? Can I buy this?" Your answer to the listener's question comes right out of the text. From the story of Esther, you can show how God overcomes the poor spiritual climate around you, the impossible people, the unpredictable events of life, the circumstances you can't change. He does all of this in ways you won't recognize if you don't look closely.
For another example, think about preaching a sermon from Genesis 13. We've already noted that the biblical writer seems to pursue explanation in his telling of the story. But as you think about your audience, you think they will challenge the notion that believers should initiate conflict resolution. Perhaps they got burned when they tried to settle an argument with a spouse. Maybe some of them lost jobs because they tried to initiate resolution. Instead, they initiated the process of being terminated. When they hear you say, "Believers should take the initiative to resolve conflict," they may respond, "is it true? I'm not sure I buy it." By anticipating this question, you can use the latter part of the story to validate the idea that God blesses his people when they take the initiative to resolve conflict. You can point out to people that while the short-term payoffs may be deceiving, the long-term payoffs will reward the risk you take to resolve a conflict.
The third functional question tackles application. It asks, So what? What difference does it make? Once again, expositors will begin by asking this question of the text. Did the writer shape the story to show the implications of the story's big idea? Preachers must realize, though, that the narrative form does not lend itself to the kind of application possible in the didactic literature of the New Testament Epistles. For example, in 1 Peter 4:7, the apostle submits this idea: "The end of all things is near." Then, with the word therefore, he launches into a series of applications. What difference does it make if the end is near? Peter sketches applications in the areas of praying, loving, sharing, and serving. While stories rarely apply their ideas this directly, they sometimes apply ideas subtly. For example, the author of Chronicles shapes his material to encourage loyalty. While Kings and Chronicles rely on the same pool of historical events, the writer of Kings chooses material validating the idea that Israel and Judah deserved punishment. Chronicles, on the other hand, speaks to the exiles who return from captivity, assuring them that obeying God will make a difference. Because God blesses loyalty, they should pursue loyalty. To be sure, this development happens subtly as the various stories in Chronicles provide pictures of what loyalty looks like. In preaching Old Testament narratives, the third functional question makes its most significant impact when the preacher relates it to the audience. When related to the audience, this question asks, What will this truth look like when it is fleshed out in the lives of my hearers? What is God calling people to do through this story?
Application is the area where preachers most often run into trouble when preparing sermons from Old Testament narrative literature. To be sure, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But how do preachers extract legitimate applications from a story? Haddon Robinson quips, "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis."3
Some preachers who swing for the application green end up in a bunker called moralizing. Eugene Peterson describes and laments this approach:
Somewhere along the way, most of us pick up bad habits of extracting from the Bible what we pretentiously call "spiritual principles," or "moral guidelines," or "theological truths," and then corseting ourselves in them in order to force a godly shape on our lives. 'chat's a mighty uncomfortable way to go about improving our condition. And it's not the gospel way.4
Listen to Graeme Goldsworthy criticize evangelicals for moralizing Old Testament narrative texts instead of basing application on the author's intent:
We must not view these recorded events [historical narrative] as if they were a mere succession of events from which we draw little moral lessons or examples for life. Much that passes for application of the Old Testament to the Christian life is only moralizing. It consists almost exclusively in observing the behaviour of the godly and godless (admittedly against a background of the activity of God) and then exhorting people to learn from these observations. That is why the "character" study is a favoured approach to Bible narrative — the life of Moses, the life of David, the life of Elijah and so on. There is nothing wrong with character studies as such — we are to learn by others' examples — but such character studies all too often take the place of more fundamental aspects of biblical teaching.5
For example, a typical sermon on 2 Samuel 11-12 might extract the following applications from the story:
- Times of idleness can make us more vulnerable to temptation. If King David had gone out to war with his army in the spring (the usual custom of kings), he would not have put himself in a circumstance where he faced sexual temptation. Likewise, it's the down times in your life that place you in a vulnerable spot. When you decide to quit teaching your Sunday school class, or stop volunteering as an aide in your daughter's kindergarten class, or take a break from singing in your church choir, you can create idleness that leads to boredom and heightened vulnerability to temptation.
- Create a parable when you need to confront someone with their sin. Nathan did this. If he had started by pointing his finger at David and accusing him of committing adultery and murder, David might have committed another murder! However, the parable caught David off guard. Like good stories do, Nathan's parable snuck past David's defenses and nailed him with the truth before he realized what had happened. When you need to confront your sixteen-year-old son or daughter about drinking, create a parable that will lead your teen to see how dangerous and foolish it is before directly confronting him or her for involvement in this activity.
These applications fail because they amount to "don't do what David did here" and "follow Nathan's example." But why reject them? Old Testament scholar Carl Kromtninga notes that the moralizing that voices like Peterson and Goldsworthy reject is a "wrong kind of 'lesson-making' on the basis of Old Testament narrative. They do not reject a 'do' or 'don't' application on the basis of the text; they reject a certain type of 'do' or 'don't' application."6 After all, the apostle Paul recognized the validity of looking at Old Testament narratives for examples of how or how not to live (1 Cor. 10:6, 11).
The problem with these applications is that as powerful as they seem, they are peripheral to the author's intent. David's decision to stay home from battle provided the occasion for temptation, but it doesn't explain why David, the man after God's heart, would stoop to adultery and murder. The writer wants us to see that behind the bigger package of sins was the sin of despising God's grace. Applications must flow from that intent. Does Nathan's parable illustrate the power of a parable? Certainly. But that's not where the author goes with the incident. I'm not arguing that a preacher should remain silent about these elements of the story. I don't suggest that a preacher should never draw an application from them. But any mention of them should be in passing if the preacher's goal is to preach a sermon that communicates the author's intended meaning.
A More Excellent Way
How does a preacher extract an application based on the author's intended meaning rather than peripheral (though important) incidents in the storyline? I find it helpful to begin by asking, What does this story teach me about God and his relationship with human beings? Haddon Robinson reminds preachers that "the purpose of Bible stories is not to say 'you must, you should.' The purpose is to give insight into how men and women relate to the eternal God and how God relates to them."7
This takes us back to two concepts we worked with earlier: a story's vision of God and depravity factor. We should build application around the contours of these concepts. This is what distinguishes God-centered application from mere moralizing. Like the maxims in the book of Proverbs, our applications may sometimes sound like good business advice. They may resemble hints from Heloise, advice from Dear Abby, or concepts from Stephen Covey. But like the maxims in Proverbs, solid applications must be rooted in the fear of God.
Identifying the vision of God and the depravity factor helps the interpreter move from the ancient situation to the theological principle it conveys. The preacher can then bring the theological principle into the modern world and examine what it looks like when a listener lives his or her life in response to it (see figure 8.1). The exegetical idea you have already developed will usually express the ancient situation. The theological principle will be closely related or identical to the theological expression of the sermon's big idea.
The real challenge consists of moving from the more abstract theological principle to some concrete situations in the modern world. It's easy to get tunnel vision here. We tend to think in terms of applying the theological principle to people like ourselves. The challenge is to think outside our immediate circumstances. As a middle-aged husband and father, I have to think about how a theological principle will intersect with the world of a retired couple in their seventies who deal with grandchildren as well as children. I have to imagine how a theological principle informs the Christian life of a single mother who drops off her two boys at day care, works all day as a secretary in the university's chemistry department, then picks them up and spends her evenings trying to function as father and mother. As a male whose world involves fly-fishing, basketball, power tools, and Outdoor Life, I have to think about how a theological principle will affect the life of a female whose world may revolve around flower-arranging, aerobics, kitchen appliances, and Good Housekeeping. As a pastor with a modest income, I have to think about how a theological principle relates to a doctor who must decide whether she should plunk down cash for a sports car or a sport utility vehicle. I have to put myself in the world of the young husband and father who supplements the pittance he receives teaching third grade at a private school with a night job at a sawmill.
Notice how a theological principle takes shape when applied to the grid of people who make up a congregation listening to a Sunday morning sermon. Suppose the sermon is from Genesis 13. We've already expressed the theological idea as, God's people preserve God's blessing when they face conflict by taking the initiative to resolve it. Where would this principle crop up in different people's lives? How might they apply it in their particular situation?
A single mom with two children might be embroiled in a dispute over when the children's father may visit them. He's clamoring for more time on weekends. That's the only time she can spend with her children since she works Monday through Friday. Who's going to give? To honor God, she might take the initiative by calling her children's father and offering him Saturdays from 1:00-8:00 P.M.
The young father who works a teaching job during the day and a sawmill job at night may be at odds with a couple who disagree with how he is handling their son, Andrew. The parents think Andrew might suffer from attention deficit disorder. The young teacher thinks Andrew's problem is his insistence on getting his own way. Andrew's parents want the teacher to meet with them and their family physician; they want the teacher to lighten up on their son. The teacher wants Andrew's parents to butt out and let him handle his classroom as he sees fit. He is willing to discuss the issue, but he wants to wait until the parent-teacher conferences scheduled six weeks down the road. To honor God, the young teacher might write a note to the parents explaining his busy schedule but also indicating his willingness to find an hour some afternoon when he can visit with them and Andrew's physician.
A seventy-year-old couple is at odds with their unmarried son, Rick, for leaving the family accounting firm and taking a job with D. A. Davidson and Company selling investment securities. Rick is annoyed at his parents' unwillingness to let him run his life as he sees fit. The parents think that Rick has left them in the lurch. The parents have made some snide remarks, and Rick unleashed a torrent of angry words. Both sides have cooled off, but a tension remains. Although they live only twenty minutes apart, they rarely speak, let alone see each other. To honor God, the parents decide to take the initiative to resolve the conflict. Although Rick's angry words still sting, they decide to invite him over to eat grilled burgers and watch a World Series game.
Thinking about those in your congregation who are different from you in sex, race, generation, socioeconomic status, marital status, and career will help you identify realistic ways of bringing the truth to bear on people's lives.
Excerpted from The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative by Steven D. Mathewson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Copyright 2002. Used with permission.
1 Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air (New York: Villard, 1997), 181.
2 Ibid., 277.
3 Haddon Robinson, "The Heresy of Application," Leadership Journal 18 (fall 1997): 21.
4 Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 4.
5 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian's Guide to the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Winston, 1981), 24.
6 Carl G. Kromtninga, "Remember Lot's Wife: Preaching Old Testament Narrative Texts," Calvin Theological Journal 13 (1983): 35.
7 Robinson, "The Heresy of Application," 27.