Sit in a preaching class in any seminary or divinity school in the land and you’ll hear professors stress the importance of context.
Basically, the “context” of a Scripture means “what is the setting for this text?” What was the occasion of the event, who was speaking, who was listening, and what was meant?
A preacher can and will want to apply that text to the world he lives in and the people who sit before him. But before he can do that, he will want to explain the meaning of that Scripture and the setting in which it was presented.
It’s about integrity in scripture interpretation and there is no more serious subject for the would-be preacher.
“A text without the context is a pretext.” That’s one of those cliches we preachers toss around to one another. It’s pretty much the case. But maybe there are exceptions…
To “take a Scripture out of context” means making a verse say something that was not intended. The most famous example is placing Matthew 27:5 (“Judas went out and hanged himself”) alongside Luke 10:37 (“Go thou and do likewise”).
I’m thinking of the sermon I preached last Sunday in a church in another state. My title was “Doing Right By the Church.” The message brought in a number of Scriptures that inform us of the value of the Lord’s church. At the start, I read from Matthew 9:35-38, where our Lord “sees the multitudes as harassed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.” I wondered aloud if Jesus doesn’t see something similar as He looks at the people of God across our world today.
At this point, I informed the congregation that I would not be preaching that scripture as such, that I am breaking a cardinal rule here and simply using it as a springboard into the message.
Ten minutes into the sermon, I recognized a well-known professor of preaching in the congregation. Harold Bryson has written numerous books on preaching and has taught hundreds of pastors about the craft of sermon-building and delivery.
And there I was breaking one of the foundational rules about preaching.
Oh well, I thought. This is my sermon. This is how I’m preaching it today.
And knowing Harold–we were neighboring pastors in Mississippi several decades ago–I’m confident he’s all right by what I did.
But, even if he weren’t….
There is an expression that goes: “All rules have exceptions, even this one.”
Warren Wiersbe, writing in “Preaching and Teaching With Imagination,” says, “Sermonic pretexts are heard even in famous pulpits.” That is, even the best preachers have occasionally “taken a text and departed therefrom.”
I’m in good company.
George W. Truett, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church the first half of the 20th Century, delivered a message he called “Life’s Middle Time,” based on a few words in Psalm 91:6, “the plague that destroys at midday.”
Scotland’s James S. Stewart took a reference to four anchors in Acts 27:29 and brought a sermon on “four anchors” that sustain God’s people in storms: hope, duty, prayer, and the cross of Jesus.
At Harvard, Willard L. Sperry preached on “Larger Ideas of God,” basing his message on Isaiah 28:20, “The bed is too short to stretch out on, the blanket too narrow to wrap around you.”
Frank Boreham centered his sermon “William Knibb’s Text” on Jeremiah 3:4, “My father, thou art the guide of my youth.” Wiersbe says Boreham described how God had directed the missionary’s endeavors, while the text itself deals with Israel’s marriage to Jehovah and her unfaithfulness to Him.
Even Britain’s illustrious Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, broke the context rule. Wiersbe says Spurgeon occasionally “ignored the context and ‘spiritualized’ his text.” On one occasion he preached from Judges 16:20-21 and held Samson up as an example of the “consecrated man.”
Wiersbe puts the cap on the subject (for the moment at least) with this good analysis: “Early in our ministry, perhaps all of us go through an adolescent phase during which we try to display our abilities by preaching from obscure texts or about obscure truths from familiar texts, things that nobody has ever heard before or cares to hear again.”
“The more we mature in ministry,” he says, “the more we desire to preach the great truths of the Bible and permit the texts to speak for themselves.”
The way I interpret what Dr. Wiersbe said there, he seems to be calling me an adolescent. Since my next birthday will put me at three-score-and-ten, I’ll take that as a compliment.
Of course, I might be taking that out of context.