Exegeting the Context

As someone who is still relatively new to preaching, I am finding myself given more and more to not only the content and delivery but also reception.  In other words, I am giving myself not only to rightly understanding the text of Scripture but also the context of people’s lives.  We often stress the importance of faithfulness to the biblical text (and rightly so), but as pastors there is a call to faithfulness regarding to the context as well.

One of the reasons why I love the Puritans so much is because they were to “earthy”.  As Phil Ryken puts it in his book, they were “Worldly Saints.”  In his excellent little book on preaching, William Perkins displays this in giving multiple categories of hearers, such as unbelievers who are ignorant and unteachable, unbelievers who are teachable but ignorant, unbelievers who have knowledge but have never been humbled, those who believe but have fallen back, and those who believe and are growing in their faith.  For those of you prepare messages on a weekly basis, a large majority of your time is in the text with very little time left over to working through the context of people’s lives.  But it is here where we learn that faithful expository preaching is inadequate apart from ongoing pastoral ministry.

Because of our pastoral team structure, there are Sunday’s where I am not preaching, and it is during those gatherings that I become acutely aware of the thinking, the needs, the growth, the struggles, and the everyday circumstances in lives of those who attend our gatherings.

For instance, there will be unbelievers who will hear the gospel message.  Some of them are skeptics, finding it hard to accept biblical truths.  There are others who are religious, trusting in their religious performances to be righteous before God.  There are also the cold and indifferent, the gospel-hardened, who great exposure to the gospel but are simply not interested.  Then there are those who are seeking, growing in conviction of sin, and in whom the Spirit is drawing to the Father.  I’m asking myself, “How often does the lives of these people enter my mind?” And “What is going through their minds when they hear me preach God’s Word?”

On the other hand, there are believers who will hear the same gospel message.  Some of them are seasoned believers, deep in their theological understanding, and longing for the meat of God’s Word.  There are others who are new to the Christian faith an are wrestling through the more elementary principles.  Even still there are others who are weak Christians and some who are wounded, hurting, and afflicted.  Perhaps there are some believers who have been poorly taught or received bad doctrine and don’t necessarily need correction in life (the wayward Christian) as much as correction in their thinking.

I think a healthy gathering will comprise to some degree all of the above.  I also think that Tim Keller is right in that the more you preach like that certain categories of hearers are there, the more will come to hear the message.  In other words, if your sermons are best suited for those who have years of theological education, there is a danger that (1) your congregation will be comprised of only those who fit that category because (2) others will feel that your message is way over their heads.  The outcome is unintentionally a theological elitisim that makes unbelievers or new believers very uncomfortable or worse unwelcome (this can be hashed out across the spectrum of hearers).

As a preacher, you have the opportunity to create a culture which is accepting to the diversity of hearers because you are faithfully exegeting the context.  You don’t just understand those who are like you or regularly around you, but your communication of the text is making a difference in others because of your nearness to them in their context.  Therefore, an integral element of sermon preparation is listening, learning, and digging deep into the hearts and lives of those not only in your church but also those in your city you are hoping to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I readily confess here that I have much to learn, so I am hoping those of you who give due diligence to this matter would be willing to share your thoughts and practices in thinking about and communicating to the various people under the sound of gospel preaching.

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3 Comments on “Exegeting the Context”

  1. Jim Pemberton Says:

    Now you’re talking! Mature preaching always takes aim at the audience. Otherwise, the preacher is exegeting from the pulpit as though firing at a target while blindfolded. It’s a bad understanding of application to go for general principle of behavior only. Application addresses not mere behavior, but such as intent and desire, for therein lies our spiritual character. And it’s difficult to effectively address such things without a meaningful relationship with the members of the congregation.

    Additionally, addressing such things as though intimately in a corporate setting is unifying for the congregation because everyone there afterward knows they are on the same page and will be more inclined to hold each other accountable to the standard that you set from the pulpit. They will become more aware of the sins they need to mortify and more open to the acceptance of others through accountability because such application creates a level of expectation when all the congregation now knows that everyone struggles with such things to one degree or another.

  2. […] as a call for me and others to be mindful in hopes of being an effective agent of reconciliation. Read his post here. Blogs I […]

  3. ARJWright Says:

    Very astute observations and reflections. This is only the second of your posts that I’ve read, and I think I’ll be sticking around for a while if you don’t mind.

    Your honesty will always be refreshing to those who have an ear to hear.

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