A recent FIEC webinar on church life during lockdown discussed preaching and one of the questions was around whether or not you can preach on longer passages online given the shorter attention span that online engagement causes. I am going to engage with the question of online preaching in my next article but in face I wrote about preaching on longer passages when preparing material for a series on Revelation. So to give some context, here is that article. It is an extract from Return of The King – A guide to reading and teaching Revelation.
Preaching Revelation – Going Long
When preaching through Revelation, I suggest picking up on large sections (1-2 chapters at a time). This enables the congregation to stand back and see the big picture – which I’ve suggested is the priority with a book like this.
What are the risks/challenges to doing this? Well a couple have been suggested as follows:
- It makes it difficult to ensure that the whole passage is read in church and we cannot rely on congregation members to have read it in advance
- It makes it difficult for the preacher to cover everything at a reasonable level of detail risking either a shallow surface treatment or appearing to cram too much in.
Let’s take them in turn:
Reading the Text
It’s true that we cannot rely on everyone to read the text at home -but we still can encourage this. For example, we could encourage people to follow the same book for personal quiet times. What about producing a readings card along with some questions/suggestions for each day. Whilst not everyone may join in, this may raise the bar in encouraging people to see that they cannot rely on one 25-30 minute slot to feed on God’s Word each week.
Also at Bearwood Chapel we have a variety of small groups during the week for prayer and Bible study. Some groups might choose to follow the Sunday morning teaching series giving group members to read the whole section together, discuss, ask questions and go into further depth.
At the same time, I think there are ways of including the whole passage for reading in the services. Do we just have to rely on one Bible reading (many churches already will normally have an OT and NT reading). What about spreading the reading out throughout the service. Read a short section to begin with, maybe interweave verses with songs, get people to read in different styles etc. In some cases, part of the reading may be best heard after the exposition to conclude the service.
Preaching width and depth
I want to suggest that you can preach deep when covering 1 or 2 verses or a whole section of 2-3 chapters. Both Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott preached rich meaty sermons, the former taking one sentence or verse as his text, the later a paragraph or chapter.
The different lengths of passage also reflect that we are dealing with different genres. A propositional section such as one of Paul’s letters may encourage us to look at the syntax and grammar of each verse lending itself to short readings. Even in that case, the aim should not be to work verse by verse picking up meaning and application in verse 1 and then moving on to verse 2 and so on. Rather, the aim is to get a sense of the logical and thematic flow of the text in order to identify the writer’s central theme.
With narrative, we may need to read several chapters in order to get the sense of the story, its context and why it is being told. That does not mean that you won’t want to pause and dwell on specific conversations, images and events but you will keep thinking about how they fit into the whole.
Similarly, with Revelation, I think that there’s a way of preaching in depth by picking up themes, images and words and seeing how they are repeated throughout a section to illustrate a central lesson. We will of course want to stop and pause to answer big questions – particularly where confusion and controversy needs to be cleared up but also where a little phrase may have special significance leading to powerful application. For example, I would take time to pick up on
- Jesus as Alpha and Omega -First and Last
- The Lion-Lamb
- Who are the 144,000 people with Christ?
- What is the 1000-year reign all about?
- The Beast and the number 666.
- Who/what is Babylon
- Who/what is The New Jerusalem.
Now an advantage we have with Revelation is that (if my understanding of how the book works is right) then we are going to see cycles and repetitions of themes throughout the book. This means that if I cannot cover the detail of one aspect in this week’s sermon, then it can be picked up at a later date.
For example, with Revelation 5-6 I would focus on the Lamb who is worthy to open the scrolls. The big picture is his sovereignty over revelation in Scripture and in world history. There probably won’t be time to go into each of the seals in detail at this stage but we don’t need to worry because the seals focus us on the terror and suffering that come with a world ruled by evil and under judgement. We will be able to explore these things in more detail as we look at the trumpets being sounded and the bowls being poured out.
When preaching Revelation. I think one of our key aims should be to help people see the richness of the vision and from there to grasp the depth of insight John gives us into God’s sovereign care. This should provide fantastic veins of application to explore.
 This may also mean that there are times even with this genre when you want to preach a larger section. For example, recently I chose to preach on the whole of 1 Corinthians 7. The aim was to get the whole sense of faithfulness in different circumstances. I could have preached separate sermons on singleness, celibacy in marriage, marriage to unbelievers and separation. However, I felt that with our diverse congregation it was better to preach the whole chapter and then offer people the opportunity to pick up on individual aspects. Another example would be 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. It is possible to preach on tongue speakers, prophecy and the women separately but that way we might miss the triple repetition about times for silence. In fact this might lead us to misunderstand Paul’s instructions by losing the context and rhythm. We would not necessarily go deeper and indeed I would suggest that the deeper exposition arises out of seeing the way the three instructions link up challenging us to make sure that we are hearing God when we gather and not simply following our own priorities.