Why You Should Consider Using the Big Idea Method to Guide the First Hours of Each Week’s Study Time


Michele and I just returned from attending the annual Evangelical Homiletics Society conference held on the beautiful facilities of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. I had the privilege of co-authoring and presenting a paper with my Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary teaching colleague, Dr. Jeffrey D. Arthurs.  The paper was titled, The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching Robinson’s Big Idea Method.

Shameless promotion alert: our presentation won the Keith Willhite Award for best paper of the conference.

Here’s a summary of our work. I’m including this because I hope you will consider making the big idea method a part of your weekly sermon preparation. The summary might help move you in that direction if you aren’t already a disciple.


  • Pre-exegesis. The method helps guide my study time at the beginning of every week. I don’t start with micro-exegesis (word studies), but with macro-exegesis or pre-exegesis (learning how meaning is being made through the relationship of ideas within the preaching portion).
  • Discovering the interrelationship between ideas. The method excels at identifying how various sized ideas create meaning in a pericope. Not to mention, this is the time to locate dominant and subordinate thoughts in the passage.
  • Preserves Authorial Intention. This method helps me learn what the writer of Scripture meant and keeps me from reading into or over what he has written. If you preach or teach the Bible then you use some method. I really like this one.
  • Sermon Structure. While you are doing your pre-exegesis according to this fashion, you are beginning to see the author’s structure emerge. The process of finding the big idea leads to the identification of the main points or logical moves of the author and this leads to initial sermon form.
  • Big Idea By-Products. If your analysis is correct within the first few hours of study, you have gained significant sermon by-products. You have your theme or big idea. That means you have direction for both your introduction and conclusions. You also have a sense of what the sermon is supposed to do to the listeners (sermonic purpose).
  • Aids Listener Comprehension and Retention. As your sermon stays locked into the big idea, sermon unity and clarity will help listeners  understand and remember the sermon.

That’s the rewards you can expect if you try the method. If you’re not sure how to put this method into practice, please read or reread my book, Preaching With Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching (Kregel, 2014).

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. Next time I’ll list some of the challenges that go along with the method.

Preaching the Highly-Offensive Jephthah Narrative


Our God revealed in Scripture could very easily be credited with this quote. If you’ve read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, then you know there is plenty of God’s Word that is offensive to our modern and post-modern sensibilities. That is especially true in the Judges 10 and 11 narrative often referred to as, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow.

You probably know the gist of the story: Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him a military victory over the Ammonites, then he would give as a burnt offering whatever (whomever?) comes out of his front door to greet him upon his return from battle (cf. 11:30-31).

Horror of horrors, we discover in v. 34 that Jephthah’s only daughter is the one that comes out to greet him!

In the middle of expressing to her the great trouble that is happening he says, “…and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35).

I remember screaming at Jeph’: “What do you mean you can’t take back your vow?!?! Of course you can and you should!!!!” And because he didn’t take back his vow, we receive one of the most offensive looks at the extreme cost of our salvation.

And that angle is very important if you are going to preach this narrative beyond the moralizing that goes something like: “Christians are careful about making rash vows to the Lord unless they cause tremendous heartache…”

Along with being careful whenever we make deals with God, this narrative is an opportunity for us all to express our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The parallels in the story are telling: Jephthah is a picture of…

  • our despised and rejected Savior (vv. 10:17–11:11)
  • our Savior who wins the victory for us (vv. 11:12-29)
  • the extreme cost of that victory (vv. 11:30-40 and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s only child).

It doesn’t solve all the problems of the offensive narrative, but maybe this angle will help you help your listeners give thanks for God’s costly free gift.

Preach well for the sake of His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Three Takeaways from Cox’s, Rewiring Your Preaching


I recently finished reading, Richard H. Cox’s book, Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons (IVP). Here are three takeaways from the book that may help you as you prepare sermons this week:

One. Repeating key theological and practical concepts is helpful in making disciples. On page 35 Cox writes,

“Specific brain changes result from repetitive learning….The brain responds to repetition.”

That helped me because I often shy away from any kind of repetition. I tell myself repeatedly, “They already heard this before” or “They already know this.” I didn’t realize how valuable repetition is for transformation into Christlikeness.

Two. Anyone who addresses the congregants, such as pastors or song leaders, needs to help them take their attention off the temporal and place its squarely on the eternal. Cox states that parishioners…

“must make the neural switch from daily problem solving to thinking about eternal matters if they are to hear and listen” (page 46).
Our listeners don’t make that switch automatically when they enter the church service. I need to do a better job helping them make that switch with cues such as: “We’ve all arrived having spent an entire work week in the daily grind. It’s time to spend some minutes together thinking about God and the world He is creating for us.”
Three. Our sermons must contain critical matters in God’s Word and help our parishioners realize those words are critical. On page 73 Cox writes,
“The sermon must contain things that we must hear. It must also convince us that we need to hear those things.”

Of course, it takes some effort to convince some of our listeners that the Word of God is a “must hear” kind of communication. Actually, that is God’s job of creating ears that can hear. Our job is to make sure our sermon contains His Word, not our opinions. Our own faith and intensity can help our listeners realize how desperately we need to hear from God.

Before Sunday, keep these three things in mind so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching The Sensitive Gender Issue


Have you ever wondered how churches and pastors who believe in the authority of the Bible land the way they do on the same-sex issue? How can we read the same Bible and interpret it so differently?
I just finished reading Christopher R. Seitz’s heavy book, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible. One unexpected benefit of reading the book was Seitz’s choice of the same-sex crisis in the American Episcopal Church (TEC) as his concrete example of what happens when people move away from the rule of faith (or fails to recognize that the OT functions theologically for the Church).
Seitz reports that both sides of the same-sex issue acknowledge that this boils down to “disagreement…over the interpretation of Scripture and the question of whether the Bible has something like a plain sense, in the case of same-sex behavior and in other areas” (p. 176). Seitz has followed the discussion over the exegesis of Scripture and homosexuality for over two decades and lists three phases that have occurred in that timeframe:
Phase One. It was believed that the Bible could be reevaluated and understood to be saying something that no one had thought it said up to that point. “Sodom was about inhospitality, not homosexuality; chapter 1 of Romans was about specific, exotic kinds of homosexual misconduct [as opposed to two people of the same gender entering into a loving commitment to each other]” (p. 176).
Phase Two. It was admitted that the Bible really did say what it was always understood to say [that homosexual activity was a sin]. But what the Bible was giving us “was a kind of rough guide on how to make decisions. Biblical people had to exercise judgment, and they went about this with certain flexible systems that allowed them to negotiate religious principles with changing times” (pp. 176-177). An example would be Acts 15 the decisions of the Jerusalem Council. Therefore, we have the opportunity with changing times to change our minds about what is biblical or the kind of morality God expects of His citizens.
Phase Three. The Bible does not speak to the issue of our modern-day same-sex attitudes and actions because our version of this was unknown in the times when the Bible was written. If we don’t have a word from God on the issue, then we’re left with listening to how the Spirit of God would have us respond today.
Ultimately, then, “there is sufficient confusion about what any text means, [therefore]…the only thing we can be sure of is what people report to be true in their present experience….The Bible looks like us. That is our interpretive conclusion” (p. 178).
So, I step back, take a look at that three-phase development, and ask: What keeps me from that position? I am reminded of what Barth described as “the strange new world of the Bible.” Without becoming too simplistic, go back to the very first part of the first phase. The reevaluation of the Bible was due to a clash between Scripture and cultural experience. I should expect the two views to clash. And I should preach God’s view with confidence and invite His people to inhabit His strange new world. I should not allow the presence of confusion about the meaning of God’s Word to move me to rely on present human experience to determine reality.

Preach well, including finding the balance of being careful and courageous about moving from the Bible to theology for the Church and all so God can receive glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


How To Get Excited About Every Sermon


Spoiler alert: I wish I knew the secret of getting excited about every sermon.

I felt the need to say that because the title of this post borders on click bait (a new phrase I learned earlier today).

I completed Richard Cox’s book, Rewiring your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons.

Some highlights of the book might follow later, but for now here’s a question he asks at the end in: Checklist for Sermon Preparation.

Does this sermon excite me…?

An interesting place to start.

For years I’ve said that great expository sermons require great Texts, but not all pastors and parishioners consider every Text a great Text. It’s one of the tough realities of preaching through books of the Bible.

So, what can we do to “get excited” about our Preaching Portion for Sunday, especially if it doesn’t grab us right from the first read? Here are some thoughts:

  • Remember that the corporate nature of our Sunday gatherings means that virtually every sermon sounds more exciting to some than all. I can get excited about the fact that someone will be excited about this Text. Or, you might prefer it worded this way: I can get excited about the fact that God will speak to someone from this Text.
  • Give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to excite you from this Text. Ask God to speak to you in the study before you speak to them in the service. We should be doing this every week anyway, right?
  • Place the sermon in the larger context of the worship service. Worshiping God should excite us (exclamation point). I’m guilty of forgetting that all kinds of worship is taking place before I get up to teach the Word. Sunday morning is an exciting time for our faith-family.

Before Sunday, ask if the sermon you are developing excites you so that God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching the Ugly Pictures of Human Nature in Judges

Studio portrait of mid adult woman looking into broken mirror --- Image by © Harry Vorsteher/Corbis

The picture of God’s people in the book of Judges is not pretty. For instance, in Judges 8:1, 4-6, and 8 there are three examples of insubordination. One commentator, Block, says “Even in victory Israel remains her own worst enemy.”

And often, even Israel’s best leaders, like Gideon, paint an ugly picture of our spiritual condition. Friction abounds in these stories and Gideon often flies of the handle, as they say (whoever “they” are?).

So, if and when you preach on Judges, be prepared to show your flock how difficult it is for God’s people to experience peace among themselves. Both leaders and laity have to work hard at being Spirit-controlled so the work of God can flourish among them.

In the case of the latter part of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 self-centeredness and rage are on display. It’s not a pretty sight. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gideon pulls the stunt recorded in 8:27 “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city….And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare…”

Well, you’d think God would fiercely judge them all for this. But instead, we read of His grace in 8:28 “…And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.”

I don’t understand this, but I’m sure glad God is patient with us. I am so thankful He gives us victories in the midst of our spiritual ineptness.

Anyway, be prepared to get some pretty nasty-looking looks of our condition in the Judges, but also of God’s grace. And preach it all so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Utilize This Resource To Add Practical Theology To Your Sermons


Two things have come together to create this post: reading Joel Green’s, Practicing Theological Interpretation and Trueman’s, Luther on the Christian Life.

Well, actually, three things. The third one is my discussion last week with a young pastor who will begin his first pastoral post in about a month.

Let me start with the third factor. In talking about how to gain depth for preaching, I mentioned how important it is to read theology. The temptation for pastors is to read only for church growth, leadership, or commentaries for sermon helps. Over the years I’ve discovered how important it is to find in-depth theological works. These aids are tremendously helpful as a supplement to what would be considered normal exegetical work.

One place you may want to turn is to ancient catechisms. Green writes, “a theological hermeneutic might be well advised to ask, ‘What do we see as we read Scripture through the prism of the creeds that we would not otherwise see?'” (p. 80). Just as the creeds help flesh out interpretation and application of Scripture, so do catechisms.

Take, for instance, Luther’s catechism. Our Theology Readers’ Breakfast just completed a study of Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life. The entries contain an intriguing combination of theology and practical application–practical theology.

Luther’s catechism is especially helpful because as Trueman states, “Luther was the first author of a catechism in the history of the church who came to the task as a father.” (p. 111) He writes for his children. But listen for the combination of theology and practical application.

“You shall have no other gods.”

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.


“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God, and so we should not use his name to curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive, but in every time of need call upon him, pray to him, praise him, and give him thanks.” (p. 111).

In both cases, notice that Luther begins with fearing and loving God. I would normally begin discussion of the first commandment with some minutes devoted to worshiping God. In the second case, notice the list of positive applicational actions.

So, as you study for Sunday’s sermon(s), ask yourself if anything in your preaching portion might necessitate some help from a good theology book or from an ancient catechism like Luther’s. And may our preaching contribute to God receiving glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Preaching Gideon Vs. Midian As A Paradigm For Salvation


If and when you preach through Judges, you will discover that God spent a lot of biblical real estate on the Gideon narrative. God gives tons of detail on Gideon versus Midian, probably because that contest functions as a paradigm for our salvation. Gideon is a highly unlikely military leader; his victory over the Midianites was a highly unlikely victory. That’s the point.

You’re familiar with how unsure Gideon was about God’s plan and how he asked God more than once to confirm the plan with a miracle (“the fleece”). Where’s his faith anyway?! It’s comforting to see how God did not chastise Gideon for his doubts. No lecturing; just confirming. Of course, Gideon’s example is not instruction for us to “go and do likewise.”

But the key to the narrative and its theology is God’s instruction to Gideon to whittle down his army, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” (cf. Judges 7:2). This is one of those examples of how the narrative provides a huge clue to meaning.

And be careful how you explain the Lord’s way of decreasing the size of Gideon’s army. God doesn’t tell us why the “lappers” are chosen, but not the “kneelers.” Whatever God’s reason, His intention was to take away any cause for Israel to boast in their strength. So contrary to many preachers’ explanations, the 300 who are selected are a sign of weakness, not strength. Plus, note that they take “trumpets” (v. 8, 22), not spears or bows. The soldiers were turned into fierce instrumentalists!

But God gives His people the victory over the Midianites. And it’s a great reminder of the fact that our salvation is all of God and none of us. We have a strong Savior who continually delivers us from overpowering forces that threaten to undue us. He graciously saves and sanctifies us. He does it all by Himself so we can only boast in the cross of Christ.

Preach well for sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


“Let’s be honest. That’s bizarre!”


Some things just don’t look right in the Bible. Period. And when we come across those things, we do our listeners a favor–especially our relatively un-churched attendees–by pointing it out.

One of my friends at church, Craig, gave me a great example of this a few weeks ago. He was talking about how weird it is for Jesus to be called the good Shepherd, but then for Him to send His sheep out among wolves. What kind of good Shepherd would do that!?!

That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t look right when you think about it.

Over the years I’ve benefited from James Emery White’s blog, Church & Culture. In Volume 12, No. 53 he imagined what the unchurched would tell us if we listened to them. Number 7 was, “Can we agree that there’s a lot of weird stuff attached to Christianity and the Bible? Okay, it may be true, or real, or whatever, but can we just agree that some of it is a bit…bizarre? For some strange reason, it would make me feel better to hear you acknowledge how it all looks and sounds to someone from the outside.”

Well, one reason it would make them feel better to hear us acknowledge some weirdness in holy Writ is because it’s TRUE. God has recorded some strange stuff in His Word. Another good example is the Judges’ narrative I’ll write about in weeks to come, often labeled, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow. Jephthah promises that if God gives him a strategic victory in battle, he would dedicate the first thing that comes out of his house to greet him. That first thing was only daughter! And what’s totally bizarre is that God allowed Jephthah to carry through with his promise (according to my un-inspired reading of the narrative).

There are a whole lot of well-churched folks who appreciate any time we point out such weirdness. Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has some bizarre aspects to it. If you bring it out, your listeners will appreciate the honesty and, depending on how you proceed, the mystery that is our God. That assumes you will fight the temptation to explain everything in God’s Word, especially the things that are impossible to explain.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. I usually don’t ask for feedback because I know pastors are busy. However, I am curious to hear your thoughts on why the generation of preachers before us were very hesitant to bring out the bizarre aspects of God’s revelation. Are there any dangers to this approach to interpretation and preaching? Thanks for chiming in.

Let Huge Theological Statements Carry Your Sermon, Especially in OT Narratives


If you saw Michael Phelps swim the second leg of the team’s gold medal relay the other night, you saw yet another example of how he can carry a team. Some theological statements in OT narratives function like that.

Judges 6 provides an example of how such theological statements can carry a sermon. Verse 12 reads, “… ‘The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.'” Verse 16 reads, “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you…'”

When Gideon asks in v. 15, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest…and I am the least in my father’s house'”, the answer is: Gideon will function as a deliverer because the Lord will be with Him.

Here’s how the story develops:

  1. things become horrible for the once-faithful (vv. 1-6)
  2. we’re reminded of why things get so bad (vv. 7-10)
  3. we learn the key for our deliverance (vv. 11-16) Gideon is the unlikely deliverer because God will be with him.
  4. we receive some gracious confirmation (vv. 17-24) Here, God honors Gideon’s weak faith.

Point three is key. The theological statement is found within the longest and most detailed narrative in Judges: Gideon. God’s presence explains any spiritual victories we enjoy.

There are times in the OT when you’ll have to read for a long time before you hit such loaded statements that can carry a sermon. Avoid the temptation of getting mired in historical details. Some are necessary to explain the theology of the passage.

And, if you’re thinking about highlighting a Christo-centric reading of Judges 6, you can focus on vv. 23-24. After seeing the angel of the Lord and expecting instant death, we read:

“But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.’ Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord is Peace.” God extends peace to us only because He made war on His Son on the cross.

Before Sunday, if you’re preaching an OT narrative, look for a theological statement that could carry the sermon.

All for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).