Leading the church into an ever deeper understanding of the Bible-as-a-whole is no small task, and all who devote their lives to the ministry of the Word know the weightiness of this responsibility. Like Paul, who told the Ephesian elders that he had not refrained from preaching to them “the whole counsel of God”, we long for our congregations to be nourished by every word that God has spoken (Acts 20:27). This means, however, that we must resist the natural drift to preach only those parts of the Bible that are most familiar to us. If the people of God are to continually grow in health and vitality, then we all must have a balanced and steady diet of scriptural explanation and application. But is there an approach to preaching that will ensure we feast on all scripture has to offer? Here are five recommendations that, when taken together as an integrated approach, will help you preach whole Bible and avoid running in the same old homiletic ruts.
1. Preach Whole Books
One of the best ways to begin preaching the whole Bible is by preaching through whole books of the Bible. Every preacher is tempted, perhaps even unconsciously, to avoid passages with which we are less familiar or those that take on controversial issues, but skipping over the tough passages in the Bible results in neglecting portions of the inspired text and withholds from the church God’s wisdom with regard to challenging issues. It also withholds an opportunity for growth, because careful attention to passages that run against the cultural tide is often an occasion for strengthening our faith, solidifying our convictions, and increasing our confidence in the Word of God. If you make a habit of preaching through whole books of scripture, it will not only ensure your continued growth but will also safeguard you against avoiding those hard passages.
2. Preach Both Testaments
If you are like me, you turn to the New Testament for sermon texts much more often than you turn to the Old Testament. We must remember, though, that preaching the whole Bible means preaching both testaments. When Paul told the Ephesian elders that he had not neglected to declare to them the whole counsel of God, he was most likely referring to how the story of Israel in the Old Testament had come to its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; he didn’t have the New Testament because it was still being composed at that time. Now that we have both testaments, we must preach both testaments rather than turning only to the New and neglecting the Old. This presents a fresh set of challenges. After all, there is much in the Old Testament that is difficult to communicate in homiletic form. Have you tried preaching Numbers lately? And many Old Testament passages are difficult to read Christocentrically. As a result, we are more inclined to preach Romans than Ruth; but if we never preach the Old Testament, we withhold about two-thirds of the canon from the church, which will sadly leave our congregations under-exposed to most of what the Bible says about God’s redemptive work in history. We might call this a canonical approach to preaching the whole counsel of God, because it will keep the whole canon before our people.
3. Preach Doctrines
We can also ensure that our congregations get exposed to the richness of scripture by regularly preaching from major passages from which the doctrines of the church have been drawn. This can be done in two ways. First, if you are preaching through whole books of the Bible, plan to work through books that highlight different doctrines. If you choose to preach on the doctrine of salvation in Romans, the next epistle you turn to might be Philippians, which gives a significant amount of space to the person and work of Christ, or Ephesians, which provides an opportunity to take up the doctrine of the church. When planning a series on one of these books, you may even want to find a way to highlight the doctrine under consideration in the title or subtitle of the sermon series. Second, in between preaching through whole books, you could take a few weeks to preach a series of expositional sermons on a particular doctrine. For example, if you are finishing up a preaching series on a book of scripture, you could preach a three week series on eschatology or entire sanctification before turning to work through another whole book. This would help the congregation to hear the whole counsel of God by means of intentional reflection on biblical doctrine.
4. Preach at Different Altitudes
In their recent book Preach: Theology Meets Practice (B&H, 2012), Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert recommend preaching at different altitudes. Here’s what that means. Flying over the text at a low altitude involves preaching a detailed exposition on a single passage of scripture, perhaps a paragraph or so of text. This is the default approach for most of us. Somewhat more challenging is flying over the text at a high altitude, which means taking a larger unit of scripture as the text for a single sermon and exposing the congregation to the main ideas of the larger unit without going into minute details. You will increase the richness of your long-term preaching by incorporating both kinds of sermons into your schedule.
Here’s an example of how this might work out. I typically preach low-altitude sermons; like many others, that’s where I’m most comfortable. But this presents a challenge because few of us are eager, or confident in our ability, to preach through all fifty chapters of Genesis at a pace of ten verses per week. We are hesitant to spend multiple consecutive years in a single book, and more so when it’s an Old Testament book. So, I recently took five weeks to preach a series of five sermons on the Pentateuch in which I devoted one week to each book. My goals in each sermon were to set forth the main idea of the book-as-a-whole by surveying the content of the book under consideration and applying that content to the life of the church. Alternatively, you could take four or five weeks to preach on major units of a longer book. This creates the opportunity for a church to consider the major contours of a large portion of scripture in a relatively brief span of time. It also provides homiletic exposure to more parts of scripture than we might otherwise get.
5. Preach Different Genres
As a collection of documents spanning thousands of years and a variety of cultural contexts, the Bible includes a range of literary genres. From historical narratives to wisdom literature and poetry, prophetic works to apostolic letters, and legal codes to gospels, we have a variety of genres to work with in scripture. So, when thinking about what you will preach, plan to incorporate texts from different genres. This will expose the church to the many forms of literature through which God has addressed his people, and it will give your preaching a richness that would be missing if you only preached from the epistles.
An Integrated Approach
The key to preaching the whole Bible is to weave these approaches together into a unified preaching plan. By moving between different genres in each of the testaments that focus on a variety of doctrines through diverse literary forms taken at different altitudes, pastors will expose their congregations to the multifaceted and rich contours of the whole Bible. Another benefit for both preacher and congregation is that the preacher will grow in skill by intentionally preaching on different kinds of texts at different levels. Such a discipline will require us to grow as preaching pastors. Remember as well that this is not something that can be done in a few months. It’s a plan for the long haul. Keeping this integrated approach in mind will ensure our faithfulness to proclaim the whole counsel of God over the long-term course of our preaching ministries.