Those who advocate beginning the sermon with a reading of Scripture point to the apostle Paul’s instructions to his protégé Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” They argue that Paul says there are three key elements in a sermon—reading of scripture, exhortation (application) and teaching (explanation). Dr. Steve Lawson presented this approach in a recent Institute for Expository Preaching that I attended. H.B. Charles, Jr, presents the same idea in his book, On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching. Lawson and Charles both feel that the sermon should start with the reading of Scripture.
In his book and video series, 7 Laws of the Learner: How to teach almost anything to practically anyone, Dr. Bruce Wilkinson compares teaching and preaching to fishing. In fishing, you don’t throw a brass hook into the water. You bait the hook to attract the fish. In the same way, you don’t throw a brass hook into your audience when you preach and teach. You don’t start with the Scripture and expect people to be interested. You capture the audience’s attention and make them want what you are offering before you start teaching.
While I have used both methods over the years in my ministry, I much prefer the latter approach. I tell a story, ask a question, make a statement, quote a well-known person, raise an issue, state a problem, or create a felt need before I explain that the Scriptures answer the question, address the issue, solve the problem, or meet the need. I want to capture the congregation’s attention before I show them that the Bible has the answer. Prof. Howard Hendricks used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink … but you can put salt in his oats.” I want to whet my audience’s appetite and create a desire to listen. I want to make them thirsty for what God will say to meet their need.
I do agree with the three-fold elements of preaching in 1 Timothy 4:13. I just don’t feel they have to be done in that order. I start with an engaging introduction. I then read the Scripture passage so the congregation can see it in context. As I teach or preach through the passage, I reread the verse or paragraph. By the end of the message, I will have read the passage out loud two or perhaps three times. I have a very high view of Scripture and I strive to keep it at the center of my preaching.
I also strive to balance explanation with application. The Scriptures were not given to communicate doctrine. They were given to change lives and equip people for service (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As D. L. Moody said, “The Scriptures were not given for our information, but for our transformation.
I believe the process is more effective if you start with a baited hook.