Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah . . . Oh My!—Practical Help for Preaching Longer Books
A fellow pastor recently asked me what I was preaching. After I told him that I was preaching through the whole book of Isaiah, he laughed. “Whoa! Good for you! I could never do that!”
I imagine my brother isn’t alone. Preaching through longer books of the Bible does seem like an impossible task for busy pastors. But contrary to what this brother’s response implied, a commitment to preaching through the Bible’s longest books isn’t only for über-pastors, if such a humorous fiction actually existed. Instead, it arises from a simple conviction that every pastor should share: Faithful expository preaching aims to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), which includes preaching through the longest books in the Bible.
To this end, I hope the following eight “tips” will help preachers delight in the Scriptures as they prepare to preach—and persevere!—through its biggest books.
1. Before you start, read, re-read, and re-re-read the entire book.
Long before preaching through a long book of the Bible, read and re-read the entire book. The longest books in the Bible take two to three hours to read from beginning to end. You can avoid overwhelming yourself by starting several months in advance and blocking off time for one read-through per week.
As you read, pay attention to your heart. Spurgeon warned, “If you cannot catechise [sic] your own heart, and drill a truth into your own soul, you do not know how to teach other people.” Also pay attention to explicit references to other parts of Scripture, influential people and places, repeated words and phrases, doctrinal themes, embedded clues concerning the circumstances of the author’s audience, distinct literary features, and possible transitions between major sections. As you finish your preliminary readings, try to summarizs the book’s central message (its “big idea” or “melodic line”) in a single sentence.
Many challenges associated with preaching through the longest books of the Bible are mitigated by repetitive Bible reading long before the first sermon is written.
2. Outline the entire book.
If expositional preaching aims to make the shape and point of a passage the shape and point of the message, then “expositional outlining” aims for a similar target: make the shape and point of the whole book the shape and point of the outline.
Weeks before your first sermon, identify the major sections of the book. You might also consider summarizing each major section with a brief abstract statement informed by the “big idea” (see above). This will help you synthesize the book’s flow and strengthen your ability to locate the relationship of any particular passage to the author’s overall aim.
Next, outline the various subsections within each main section, moving from general to specific. Resist the urge to take early shortcuts through extra-biblical resources. Your preaching will benefit you and your hearers most when your understanding of the shape and point of the book is the fruit of your own Word-work. Upon completion, you might sharpen your work by comparing it to outlines from fellow preachers, commentaries, or exegetical guides.
Finally, hold your preliminary outline with an open hand. Young preachers, in particular, may need to mortify the pride of perfectionism. Make your outline a “working” copy, knowing that it may change (often) due to additional study over the course of a long preaching series.
3. Be honest about yourself and your congregation.
Before you move from your outline to your preaching schedule, take time to evaluate yourself and your congregation honestly.
Be honest about yourself.
In other words, assess your ability relative to other responsibilities. In my experience, preaching larger portions of Scripture at once requires more preparation and skill than smaller portions. Likewise, some pastors are more skilled at synthesizing large portions of Scripture in a single sermon than others. If you’re not one of them, that’s okay! Humble yourself and be faithful with smaller portions, even if it means taking more time to preach through the entire book.
Be honest about your congregation.
John Flavel noted, “A prudent minister will study the souls of his people more than the best books in his library, and not choose what is easiest for him, but what is most necessary for them.” What is your congregation’s spiritual maturity? How do you gauge their biblical literacy? Will most of the members present at the beginning of your expositions be there at the end, or is your membership more transient? What long-term goals do you have for instructing your church?
How you answer these and other questions will help determine the appropriate amount of time to spend with your congregation in a long book.
4. Create a preaching schedule,
Based on what you know about yourself and your church, create a preaching schedule from your outline. Plan all of your sermons at once if you plan to preach lengthier portions of Scripture and move quickly through the book. If you decide to preach smaller passages and spend more time in the book, you might plan your sermon schedule one section at a time with strategic breaks in between each section. Taking strategic breaks after many consecutive weeks of preaching will help you pull your head above the proverbial tree-line to plan your schedule for the next major section of the book and make possible changes to your approach. You or another pastor might also use these breaks to preach through a short book from the opposite Testament or on a relevant issue that needs to be addressed before you’re able to finish the book.
5. Begin and end with an overview sermon.
Consider making your first sermon an overview of the entire book (your preliminary reading pays dividends here). Summarize the book’s big ideas, how they testify of the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39), and why the book is essential for Christians today. Let your people know, “This is where we are going, why it’s important, and what we might ask God to do in our church through this book.”
Similarly, a concluding overview sermon says, “Let’s look back at where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, how God has used this book in our church, and what it looks like for us to trust and obey His Word moving forward.” You want to fill your congregation with godly anticipation initially, and then help them reflect and give thanks at the end.
6. Recap the book often.
Many of your members will miss multiple Sundays throughout a long preaching series due providential hindrances like illness or travel or sometimes just sinful neglect. Don’t rely too much on them catching up through recorded sermons. Instead, bring them up to speed by regularly recapping what came before and comes after a given passage. Regular in-sermon recaps also help situate your text within the larger framework of the book itself and in the Bible at large. In effect, you’ll catechize your hearers and grow their biblical literacy by repeatedly summarizing the book.
7. Don’t rush repetition.
If you preach through longer books in shorter portions, you’ll inevitably run into repetitive themes that make you feel like you are essentially preaching the same sermon every week. I remember feeling this way halfway through Isaiah’s oracles (chs. 13–27). Looking back, those many weeks of repetition were arguably the most profitable stretch of sermons in the whole book. We are weak and forgetful creatures. God is good to inspire repetition where He knows we need it most. Resist the urge to rush through repetition for the sake of “freshness” or novelty. Sometimes we need to hear the same truths repeated a dozen times in a hundred ways to remember them and be changed by them.
8. Be patient, and stay the course.
You’ll be less intimidated by preaching through long books if you have a long vision for your ministry. Preaching through Genesis or Isaiah may take one to two years or more. But what are a couple of years compared to decades of preaching in the same church? Whatever you decide, an extended vision for ministry will strengthen your commitment to feeding God’s flock from every part of his Word, not just from the parts that are shorter, easier, and more familiar.
A long vision also guards you against distraction. Present controversies and culture wars will clamor for your attention. Don’t allow them to produce reactive and hasty habits in the pulpit. Stay the course. Controversies and culture wars “wither and . . . fade, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isa. 40:8). Steel yourself with this promise and patiently preach “the next text next.” Persevere through long books over many years, trusting in the Lord to establish and strengthen your church by his grace, in his time, and for his glory.
“He will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23).