Using Math to Preach

Here are a few Bible-related questions to ponder:

  • What is significant about the year Methuselah died? (And why does it matter?)
  • What was the wine worth that Jesus miraculously created at Cana?
  • Just how much energy was in the storm Jesus stilled on Galilee?
  • How hard would it be to get a camel through the eye of a needle?
  • What is the surface area of the Earth and how does it relate to the Book of Revelation?

Answers to all of these questions can be captured—and preached—with the help of math.  (I’ll attempt to answer them in this article.)

Why Use Math in Preaching?

Math opens a window into God’s Word and offers a great vehicle for bringing some passages to light.  I often like to use math when I preach and teach for several reasons.  Mathematical illustrations:

  • Engage Listeners

They draw not only those who will hear the sermon into the Word but also myself as I study a passage.  Math also fosters critical thinking—so do some of your own critical thinking before you venture out!

  • Enhance Comprehension and Communicate Visually

Mathematical pictures enhance comprehension as they give the mind of the listener a visual handle to grasp onto when thinking about a passage. Even if the picture is not represented by a diagram, listeners can better “see” the illustration or passage in their mind.

  • Energize a Sermon

They can energize a sermon, engaging and expanding the imagination of the listener as their own minds must consider the concepts and calculations.

  • Drive Home a Point

After engaging the mind, a Scripture-related math example can articulate a truth and land on practical application.

  • Glorify God

God, the architect of a mathematical world, is lifted up when his math is used to communicate.  Math points to him as the source of order and glory in the world.  Sometimes, it blows the mind!

 

Here are some Scripture passages accompanied by math-related illustrations to bring them to life:

1.  The Genealogical Timeline of the Patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 6 (This is the one about when Methuselah died.)

Using math and rather specific data provided by God in Genesis 5 and 6, we can learn some interesting insights.  Let’s assume that the year God created Adam and Eve is “Absolute Year Zero.”  In that case, we can carefully derive the following dates and time spans:

Home

*Calculated by adding the age of the patriarch at death to the “Absolute Year” that the patriarch was born.
**So that we don’t get drawn into the assumption that all the dates are blurry and that the Flood didn’t actually happen, God gives the exact day the Flood began.  The floodwaters opened on Noah’s 600th on the 17th day of the 2nd month (Genesis 7:11).  Noah lived 350 years beyond the Flood.  Interestingly, Abraham was born right about the time of Noah’s death, 2,000 years after Creation and 2,000 years before Christ.  Don’t you find that interesting?
***I once read a book by Watchman Nee that demonstrated that the years between Creation and the birth of Christ could be traced and accounted for through the chapters of the Old Testament.  The calculations above were from “original” research I’ve done over the years.

 

Three important observations from our math in Genesis:

  • The Flood of Noah occurred in “Absolute Year” 1,656.
  • The oldest patriarch, Methuselah, lived 969 years.  (Noah was second at 950 years.)
  • Methuselah died in “Absolute Year” 1656—the exact year of the Flood!

If Methuselah had died in the year 1666 at the age of 979—ten years after the Flood—that would mean that he lived through the Flood though he wasn’t on the Ark.  In that case, we’d have a significant problem related to the dependability of the Bible.  But as can be carefully calculated from the data provided in Genesis, Methuselah died in the exact year of the Flood.  (Perhaps he died and God sent the Flood—or perhaps he had left the righteous path and perished in the Flood.  Who knows?  Without the flood, he may have lived more than 1,000 years!)

Preaching Point:  The Bible is an amazing book!

Evangelistic Point:  If Noah’s Flood were to happen today, would you find yourself covered with water or safe in the Ark?

2.  The Sabbath Rest of Genesis 2 and Exodus 20

God wisely and compassionately prescribes that we are to rest a day a week.  If we were to take a day a week and live for 70 years, we would accumulate 3,640 days of rest for a total of 120 months.  Which of us would not like to have 10 years of vacation in a lifetime?  God’s made provision for just that!

Preaching Point:  Even as he expects our worship, God is looking out for our interest!

Evangelistic Point:  Have you entered the “rest of God” which doesn’t just offer 120 months of rest, but far more than 120 million joyous years of rest?

3.  The New Jerusalem Described in Revelation 21

We are told in Revelation that the New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven.  It will be quite a sight.  John describes the city dimensions as 1,400 miles wide, 1,400 miles long, and 1,400 miles high.  That is, the base of the New Jerusalem will be 1,960,000 square miles.  This is almost exactly 1% of the Earth’s surface*.  At its base, the New Jerusalem will be more than half the size of the United States (55%, actually).*

If each “story” in this gigantic structure is a mile in height, the accumulated surface area of the New Jerusalem will be 2,744,000,000 square miles (more than 15 times the surface area of the Earth!) **

Of course we don’t know how many people will be in the New Jerusalem, but let’s say God brings one billion people into the city (obviously not a universalist position—see Matthew 7:13-14).  In the case of a billion, every person could be allocated 2.7 square miles a piece.  That’s 1,756 acres each!

Venturing further into “sanctified imagination,” I like to think of the Tree of Life being the full 1,400 mile height of the structure and spreading its glorious fruit to every corner of the city.

Preaching Point:  There will be plenty of room in the New Jerusalem for as many as believe!  The vision of the city is an immeasurable encouragement for believers as they anticipate glory.  (See also Ephesians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 2:9-10.)

Evangelistic Point:  The glory of the heavenly city is for those who trust Christ.  Leave your sins behind and receive the incredible grace of God!

Notes on Math Example #3:
*I’m told that Randy Alcorn has done some similar calculations in his book Heaven.  If you want to explore this more, it’s supposed to be the comprehensive work on the subject.  The surface area of the Earth is 196,939,900 square miles.  I’ve got a suspicion that when we understand the unit of measure John uses in Revelation it actually will be 1%.  We’ll just have to see when we get there.
**If the stories were a standard 10 feet in height, the surface area of the New Jerusalem would be far more than half the surface area of the Sun or 7,357 times the land area of the United States.  (The surface area of the United States is 3,548,974 square miles and the surface area of the Sun is 2,355,223,167,106.)  The accumulated surface area of all the stories in the New Jerusalem would be 1,448,832,000,000 square miles (over a trillion square miles).  I doubt God will pack us in so tightly.  So, the “mile-high stories” is a more likely scenario.  I also doubt the city will be so mundane as to have stories all the same height.

4.  The Widow’s Mite in Luke 21

If the widow gave two cents (two copper coins) and let’s say the wealthy hypocrites each gave $50 into the plate—that would be 5,000 pennies.  Add all the pennies in $50 and divide by two.  The hypocrites gave gifts of 2,500 times the amount of the widow.  Yet, Jesus preferred her gift to theirs.  Why?

Preaching Point:  God is more interested in the depth of our commitment than the breadth of our gifts.

Evangelistic Point:  You can’t buy your way into heaven.

5.  Jesus Turns the Water into Fine Wine in John 2

The six stone jars equaled approximately 25 gallons each or 150 gallons total.  This is the equivalent of 427 bottles of wine.  The passage is clear that it was top quality wine.  At the great price of ten dollars a bottle, this would be a $4,270 gift to the wedding party.

Preaching Point:  Jesus is both powerful and generous!  (And wine itself can be a blessing.)

Evangelistic Point:  When was the last time you met someone who could change water to wine?  Jesus is the one to believe in!

6.  The Gates of Pearl in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:21 

John reveals that there will be 12 gates into the heavenly city, each made of a single, large pearl.  With a billion people going in and out of the gates, the gate will need to be rather sizeable.  But let’s be conservative and say that the gates (and pearls) are only 30 feet wide.  If using a pound for pound comparison to the value of the world’s largest pearl (10 inches across*), one of the gates carved from a pearl would be valued in 2007 U.S. dollars would be $2.8 trillion.  Multiplied by 12 gates, this value would calculate to $34 trillion. So, how much value is that?  Nearly three times the combined annual productivity of every person in the United States—or the equivalent of 210 billion hours of work!

Preaching Point:  Heaven will be exquisite, beyond imagination. If Jesus took six days to create the world (John 1:3) but has potentially spent 2,000 years (John 14:2-3) building the New Jerusalem, you’ll want a glimpse of what he’s built!

Evangelistic Point:  Do what you can to get into heaven! 

*Note:  Never mind that the quality of the world’s largest pearl is rather poor but still valued at approximately $60 million.

7.  Jesus Calms the Storm in Mark 4 

The disciples were facing a storm in a boat about to capsize.  They feared they would perish.  Jesus stands up and commands the storm to be still!  How much power is that?  Again, let’s be conservative.  The Sea of Galilee is 13 miles long and 8 miles wide.  The passage indicates that the storm was rather fierce.  Let’s assume that it was blowing at a force of 20 pounds per square foot.  If the face of the storm blowing across the Sea of Galilee was only the width of the sea and just 100 feet tall, then the force of the wind would equal 4,224,000 pounds.

Preaching Point:  Jesus is God!  Rejoice he’s on your side!

Evangelistic Point:  Jesus is God!  Be sure to get right with him!

Other Example Passages

A few other passages you might explore, making your own estimations and calculations and preaching points.  (Hint:  Many desktop calculators don’t have enough digits for big numbers.  The calculator installed as a standard accessory program on most PCs has far more capacity):

  • The Great Commission:  If there was only one Christian in the world, and that person led two people to Christ in a year and those two each led two to Christ in a year, and so on, how many years would it take to reach all six billion people on earth?
  • Feeding of the 5,000:  If there were 5,000 men each with three family members at Jesus’ feeding of the crowd and each person in the crowd got the equivalent of three $1 items off the McDonald’s value menu, what would the bill have been for feeding that many people?
  • Space on Noah’s Ark:  Given that the ark was approximately 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high, how many cubic feet were within the ark?  If the average size animal on the ark (ranging from a mosquito to an elephant) was the size of a typical sheep and eachpair of animals was given the average space of 5 feet wide by 6 feet long by 3 feet high for living and storing food), how many different pairs of animals could fit on the ark?  (Don’t worry about bumble bees and killer bees, Great Danes and Chihuahuas,  quarter horses and thoroughbreds. One type of each animal will do as the derivative breeds will naturally develop over time…)
  • The Heavens Declare the Gory of God in Psalm 19:  The expanse of our own solar system is enough to shout his glory, besides the amazing distances between stars and galaxies.  As light travels 186,000 miles a second and earth is 93 million miles from the Sun, how long will it take for a ray of light to cross the distance between the Earth and the Sun?  What if it was an airplane flying at 600 miles an hour?  Pluto is 3.7 billion miles from the Sun.  How long would it take for that plane to travel from the Sun to Pluto?  What if a person walked that distance at the brisk pace of three miles an hour?
  • The Value of Reaching One Soul in Luke 15:  Assume that each person averages a lifespan of 100 years and that 100 billion people have lived on earth.  It could be more but probably far less.  If we strung together all the total years of all the people whoever lived, how long would the string be in accumulated years?  The new rendition of Amazing Grace states “When we’ve been there 10 trillion years, bright shining as the sun…”  What’s greater, all the years of all the people from all of history—or a single soul living the first 10 trillion years in eternity?  How serious should we be about steering people from their course away from God back to an eternity with him?
  • A Camel through a Needle’s Eye in Matthew 19:  If you were to flatten a 7-foot-high, 950-pound camel displacing 54 cubic feet down to a thread of 1/16th of an inch in diameter, how long would that thread be.  Hint:  This is a more challenging math problem and the answer is the thread would be very, very long!  Question:  Does it makes sense to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle or find a different way to get to your destination?

Tips for Using Math to Preach

A few additional thoughts for using math effectively in preaching:

  • You won’t use math in every sermon you preach, but keep an eye out for opportunities to bring a passage to light using math and creativity.
  • It’s important at the start to make clear any underlying assumptions.  For example, use the phrase, “Let’s say…”  For instance, “Let’s say that each ‘story’ in the New Jerusalem is a mile high.  Or “Let’s say that each the value of a pound of a pearl is…”
  • The use of math is not always an exact science.  Often it’s a tool for giving a context for a passage or story.
  • Do your research.  Scripture, a good calculator, Google.com, Wikipedia.com, Encarta.com and other sites are of great help.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.  You’re not a scientist and your hearers will understand that.  The use of calculus is not necessary!
  • When precise figures are not available, it is useful to estimate in a way that is consistent with reality.  When estimating, always be conservative.
  • It’s important to guard against exaggeration unless it’s obvious that you’re exaggerating with hyperbole.
  • Be sure to bring home the point with a practical application.  You don’t want your listeners to be left asking the question, “So what?”

When pertinent, enjoy the process of using math in your preaching!   

Originally published on SermonCentral.com. Used by permission.

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Ron Forseth
Ron Forseth is Editor-at-Large for SermonCentral.com and ChurchLeaders.com. He studied for two years with Wycliffe Bible Translators and has a passion to share Christ and see all people groups of the world reached with the Gospel. He served for several years as a college pastor in Colorado and in Christian service for most of the 1990s in China and Mongolia. He is Vice President of Outreach, Inc, an organization dedicated to inviting and connecting every person in America to a Bible-believing church so that they might have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Ron lives with his wife Carol in Colorado Springs, Colorado.