In the last letter I wrote to you we were talking about the importance of fostering in the minds of the people of God a proper attitude towards the Scriptures. I think I ended that letter with saying that this must be done especially by means of faithful and careful exegesis of Scripture. This holds true whether you are expounding the Word on the pulpit on Sunday, teaching the children in Catechism, bringing the Word of God to the sick and suffering, the aged and dying, or calling the wayward to repentance and confession of sin.
Since I last wrote you, however, you sent me another letter in which you have questions concerning the practical application of the preaching. Whether we can get at these questions in this letter remains to be seen. We had probably better finish the discussion we began last time before we get into this new subject.
I’m not exactly sure how best to get at this matter of exegesis. Perhaps the best way to get at it is from the practical point of view of the minister’s own experience. I do this because the impression must not be left with you that I think you did not learn your lessons well in exegesis class in school and that you have not learned more concerning this work in the time you have spent in the ministry. I don’t want to begin again a course in exegesis.
Nevertheless, when I look back on my own ministry and when I can get together sufficient courage to take a look at some of the old sermons I preached after I had been in the ministry for a while, I discover that there was a period when, as far as exegetical work was concerned, I slipped a bit. The exegesis is not up to par. There is a noticeable slack-off in the quality. There is no longer the evidence of growth which there should have been. And, as I recall it, it took a conscious awareness of this, an honest evaluation of my work, and a renewed determination to get back on the right track.
I make these confessions because I suspect that my experience in this respect is not really all that unusual. I suspect, in fact, that this may be an experience which is generally shared by all those who have been in the ministry for a while.
What the reasons for this may be are perhaps not so easily discovered. Perhaps there is partly the fact that ministers tend to get busier and busier with all the demands made on their time and with all the extra work that gets shoved on them. And the result can easily be that exegesis doesn’t get done the way it should. It is one place where we can do some cutting of comers. Another reason may be that we tend to think, after a bit, that we have become skilled exegetes, and that, in inverse proportion to our growing skills, the time we think we need to spend on this work declines. I might point out already at this point that if exegesis were nothing but an intellectual exercise, this might conceivably be true. But because exegesis is also a spiritual exercise in the sense that it is the means by which we learn what the Holy Spirit is saying, this is not very true at all. Another reason may be that we simply become careless with the Word. In our close association with it, we become familiar with it in the wrong sense of the word so that the adage holds also in this respect: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” If this is the case, this is serious business and a sin to be repented of. But I suppose each minister has his own devils to fight and, therefore, his own particular reasons why thoroughness and carefulness of exegesis takes a nose-dive after he has been in the ministry awhile.
I talked with my pastor the other day about this matter and, wondered aloud to him whether it might not be a good idea to hold some kind of exegesis seminars in Seminary during the summer weeks. After ministers have been in the pastoral ministry awhile they might find it profitable to spend a few days with some of their colleagues—not so much to take a refresher course in exegesis—although this might be the practical result of the course, but to get together with their fellow ministers to do some exegetical work and discuss together the difficulties and problems which they encounter and with which particularly they have to struggle in their exegetical work. It would give them the opportunity to study again the whole matter of exegesis from the perspective of actual practical experience rather than from the more theoretical perspective of your Seminary days. But I suppose there are practical problems which would make something like this difficult to arrange.
I am not pressing for a particular method of preaching, either. I say this because, as you know, it is increasingly common in our day for ministers to preach on a rather lengthy section of Scripture, and to treat this section in such a way that the minister simply goes from one phrase or clause to the next as he proceeds through the chapter and makes a few remarks by way of exposition and interpretation. And indeed, not all expository preachers follow the method which we generally follow in which a minister takes a relatively short passage, exegetes the material thoroughly, and arranges the material logically in a-proper outline.
But the point is that exegesis lies at the bottom of all your work. As far as the preaching is concerned, I have discovered, as no doubt you have, that exegesis is always hard work. Although in a certain sense it gets easier—in the sense of gaining a greater understanding of the concepts used in Scripture, increasing in an awareness of what to look for in a text, what questions to ask, how to relate the concepts and ideas in a text, nevertheless, in another sense, this work is just as hard after thirty years in the ministry as it was the day you started. And it is just as hard because the work is a spiritual exercise of faith. It is work which requires one to come to Scripture as God’s Word to learn what the Spirit has to say to the Churches. And this is never easy and never becomes any easier. This work can never be done simply by turning to the commentaries to see what they have to say on a given passage. Nor can it be done by getting a general and rather vague idea of what the text teaches without getting down to the details—then to make a sermon which develops rather synthetically the general idea gathered from the text. Nor can this be done by way of a hasty perusal of the text and a hasty throwing together of some thoughts which you ran across in your reading or which come to mind as you hurriedly throw together an outline. Even the pressures of lack of time are never an excuse for this kind of work. You are above all a minister of the Word. And the ministry of the Word implies diligent and careful exegesis. It may take you two days to prepare a sermon when you are first in the ministry. It ought to take you two days to prepare a sermon even after you have been in the ministry for twenty-five years. There are times, I know, (funeral services come, Christian holidays which require extra sermons are required by the Church Order) when this is impossible; but, in general, this is a goal to set before you—and a goal which ought to be attained most of the time in your ministry.
There are all kinds of things that one can do to make his exegesis rich and proper. He can study the many related passages which are found in the Word of God. He can search out examples of the truth his text teaches from the historical sections of Scripture. He can pay closer attention to the meaning of words in their etymology, their use in Scripture, etc. He can pay stricter attention to the relation between his text and the whole context of the book in which his passage is found; In all these areas there is always room for more study. But above all, he must be spiritual about his approach. There has to be time in his sermon making for that Word of God to sink into the depths of his soul so that it becomes a part of Him. This is, no doubt, emphasized by the Hebrew word for “prophet.” You recall that the noun comes from a verb which means, “to boil over.” If a prophet (and you are one) “boils over” with the Word of God, he is filled with that Word. But he is not filled with that Word in a mechanical way—in the way a pan on the stove is filled with water; he is filled with that Word as a preacher with a heart, a mind, and a will. His heart is full. His mind is full. His will is full. It is so full that he is all but bursting with that Word. He simply must get to the pulpit as quickly as possible, for he can scarcely keep that Word inside of him. It must be spoken. It must be brought to the people of God. The hand of God, through that Word, is upon him. To reach this point takes time and study, patient labor and spiritual exercises of faith.
But it emphatically must be the Word. When that Word comes “gushing” out, it must be the very Word of God. And when it is; there is nothing which will impress your hearers quite so much with the importance of that Word as your own preaching of it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But this same principle holds true for all your work. Preparation for Catechism will not be sufficient if it is only a quick review of the particular Bible’ story which has to be taught, or if it is a hasty perusal of the pertinent chapter in Hoeksema’s “Dogmatics”. Catechism teaching has also to be exegetical. It must be a discovery of what God is saying to the lambs of the flock. It must be expository. Quite obviously, this is going to be done in a way quite different from the way a sermon is preached. But the principle holds true. And this principle holds for all your ministry. It is well to follow this same expository method when you go to visit the sick, the mourning, the suffering, the people of God in the throes of temptation, fiercely attacked by Satan. You must take up that Word of God and expound it for God’s people. You must, in the truest sense of the Word, exegete it. This takes preparation. Obviously, such preparation is not always possible. You might be called to the hospital in the dead of night in an emergency. Or you might be forced to turn to other passages of Scripture when the true nature of the problem becomes evident to you after you have talked for awhile with your sheep. But if you do your “homework” when you are supposed to do it. and when you have opportunity to do it, then the times when you have no such opportunity will readily take care of themselves.
Your method of exposition may be quite different. You may indeed read a rather lengthy passage and simply make some explanatory remarks as you go along. But the point is that you are still a minister; and a minister is an exegete.
To accomplish this, you have to take time out from time to time to give your work some honest evaluation and to take a sharp and critical look at your exegetical labors so that there will be occasion to remind yourself of your calling and to rededicate yourself to your task as preacher and exegete.
We shall try next time to get at the questions you asked about practical preaching.
Fraternally in Christ,