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Why I Don't Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On

“God’s Word is not a text book.” That was one of the first sentences I heard in the toughest, best class I ever took in Bible college. Hermeneutics from Norman Arnesen at Bethany College.

Professor Arnesen held his Bible up for the class and spoke softly, but firmly.

“Please don’t ever treat this book as anything other than what it is. It’s not a text book, a rule book or a collection of inspirational quotes. And, whatever you do, don’t ever go to the Bible to find a passage to preach on for Sunday’s sermon.”

I was with him until that last part. Thankfully, he explained what sounded like heresy to me.

“It will be tempting, when you have to preach and teach two or three times a week (this was the era of the Sunday evening service and mid-week Bible study), to open your Bible and search for something—anything!—to inspire your next sermon or Bible study. Please resist that temptation.”

Don’t Lose the Wonder

“You see, the Bible really is God’s Word to us. When we open it to hear God speak to our heart, God will honor his Word and speak to us through it.

“Your task and holy calling as a pastor will be to hear from God, grow in faith, then take what God has shown you and share that experience with the church. 

“When we treat the Bible like a collection of sermon texts, we lose the wonder and the beauty of it. When we read it to find material to preach from, we stop hearing God speak to us. And when that happens, we start dying spiritually. It’s all output and no inflow.

“That’s a dangerous position for a pastor to be in. And it has killed many great ministries. Don’t let it kill yours.

“This class is not designed to tell you how to find the “right” passage to preach from. What I hope to do is teach you how to take the passage God has touched your heart with and treat it in such a way that you can teach its principles to others accurately and passionately.

“Now, open your syllabus and let me show you how I plan to torture you for the next four months.”

Let God’s Word Speak to You First

OK, I made that last part up.

But the rest of it is my best recollection of one of the best lessons I ever received in pastoral ministry and preaching.

Since then, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in ministry. But one thing I’ve never done is break the promise I made to God and myself that day in that classroom. I’ve never gone to the Bible looking for something to preach about on Sunday.

When I open God’s Word, it is to ask God to speak to me, and me alone.

I continue to discover new depths every time I do that. Then I take the overflow, I apply the painstakingly thorough principles I learned in that hermeneutics class, and I do my best to share the truths God shows me through the wonder of his Word.

Norman Arnesen and Bethany College are no longer with us. But what they taught me lives on.

So what do you think? Has the Bible become a text book or repository of sermon material for you? What can you do to take it back?  

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.