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

Bible“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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(Bible photo from Chris Yarzab • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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12 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On”

  1. A lot of good thoughts here. I was mentored by Dr. Paul Fink, then Hermanutics prof at Grace Seminary, Winona Lake, Ind. he was verse by verse – line by line expository teaching.

    I always know what I am preaching on…it’s the next passage in the current book. Here’s my tip for the day…I never retreach a passage that I don’t restudy.

    Also…I don’t have to inspire the people…the Holy Spirit through the Word will do that with His power points.

    1. I’m with you, Mike. I’ll use my previous notes when I re-teach a passage, but only as a reference point for study. And only after I’ve re-studied it anew. That way my old thoughts about it don’t crowd out any new inspirations. There’s always something new to see.

  2. Great point, and oh so hard to hold to… I must confess that my ministry has suffered many a time due to this very thing… Although I too have often said “The Bible is not an Academic study guide, it is a living word” I have found myself taking the easy way out when my time has been consumed by the needs and demands of being a small church pastor. The two areas that I have failed in too many times is this and praying… I have not yet learned how to avoid falling back into this over and over. Prayerfully one day I will.

  3. Love it….. This has been the method I have used in 35plus years of preaching. I tell people, “I am in a journey with God. Come join the journey……………..”

    The negative side is those who are not along for the spiritual journey, but simply to be informed usually don’t get it. For years I took this personally.

    These days I just open up the word and share what God is speaking into my life through it. This is who I am and how I am gifted. I now understand my approach is not for everyone — and it is not something to take personal.

  4. I recently had a conversation with some Bible college students. They asked me how I found messages every week. I told them what a bible college prof to me that yours did, “The Word is your life, bread, and meat. It is not a text book. First read it to get Gods word for you, and the sermons will follow.” They did not get it then but I pray they will get it when they are in the trenches of ministry.

  5. I disagree 100% with both the statement and the premise behind it. The premise states that if you go to the Bible looking for a text you’re approaching it like a textbook, not a living book. That’s bunk. When I go to the Bible for something to preach, I just read until something stirs my interest. God makes something interesting to me and from that grows a message for others. I guess you would agree with that last point. However, nearly any text (genealogy lists is a notable exception) can become a sermon once the preacher has exegeted the text. The message doesn’t have to be addressed to me; it doesn’t have to be addressed to a particular person in the church. If it’s solid, it will have impact. Or do we not take seriously Isaiah 55:11 “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”? You can assign me a passage and once I have spent time with it, I will be ready to preach a sermon that has great meaning for the congregation.

    1. Bob, I hear what you are saying and I am not sure you are disagreeing with the point being made… you said “When I go to the Bible for something to preach, I just read until something stirs my interest. God makes something interesting to me and from that grows a message for others”. I think that is similar to what was said. Also, not to be argumentative, but concerning Isaiah 55:11, I must say that not everything that goes out of a preachers mouth is from God. I have heard preachers throw scripture at someone in an attempt to hurt or discredit them and I didn’t believe God was behind that… I have also sat under preaching that was read straight from a book and had no life nor power to it. Remember when Jesus spoke in Capernaum and the people of the gathering were astonished at His teaching for He taught as one who had authority, and “not like their teachers”. I understand your point but I feel I need to be careful not accept every preachers words as “God ordained”.

    2. Wow. Bunk. Never had a post called that before. Not in the comments, anyway. Actually Bob, I agree with you that God’s Word has power when it’s exegeted correctly, even if the speaker has gone to the text looking for something to preach on. That’s one reason I entitled the piece “Why I Don’t Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On”, not “Why You Should Never…” (Even though Professor Arnesen might have entitled it that way).

      The premise of the post and of the lesson from Professor Arnesen wasn’t about the value of the bible to those hearing it. It was about guarding the spiritual life of the pastor through whom it passes. Of course Isaiah 55:11 is true. God and his Word can use any vessel. But we’ve all seen too many pastors burn out in ministry even while they were blessing others. And I can tell you from my experience with many of them that a contributing factor for some is that the bible has stopped being God’s living, breathing, life-sustaining voice to them. Why? Because every time they open it, all they can think of is “is there a sermon in here somewhere?” just like a student approaching a textbook, asking “will this be on the test?”

      That’s what I was referring to when I said “It’s all output and no inflow.” God’s Word always has impact when handled correctly. But It has greater impact on everyone when it has spoken transformatively into the heart of the speaker first. I’ve never had to go to the bible to find a text to preach on because I always have plenty left over from my personal interactions with it. That seems like a better, healthier, long-term approach to ministry to me.

  6. A non-pastor’s perspective. While I never have preached a sermon other than in my homiletics class, I have been listening to sermons since I was 6 months old. I must venture to say that I really did not get anything out of them until I was in high school. I would agree with Karl. I have listened to thousands of sermons over the past 54 years and it is so easy to tell the God inspired ones verses the human driven speeches. Karl I don’t know if you ever had a class with Rick Howard, but there was preacher/teacher. He totally blew me away both on an emotional, as well as, a intellectual level; and trust me as a syndical hardened Methodist headed for law school that was not an easy task. However, on the flipside, because of the demands that are placed on pastor’s shoulders from needy people, it is only a testament of God’s grace and power that more pastors don’t lose it. I am sure there are many times where there just is not enough hours in the day to do everything that is demand from them. This is where I believe the struggle between doing things in your own strength verse letting go and letting God, to use an over quoted cliché, but that does not change its truth, comes into play. Pastors because of their desire and compassion to meet the needs of their flock get way over extended and are forced to re-arrange priorities, and thus, In a lot of cases the sermon, as well as, administrative duties get less attention. However, in some unfortunate situations, more important things get over looked like family and health, which causes greater harm. This is totally understand because the pastor’s tender heart and love for people. Sometimes pastors must say no or delegate and pray for God’s intervention. So in closing, “I see according to the clock on the wall, time has got away from us this morning’s service” I believe pastors and, as well as, the congregation, need to pray for God’s divine inspiration for each and every sermon and for the Holy Spirit to soft the hearts of the hearers.

  7. Agreed. May I add another aspect that I have seen too often.
    The preacher having his own idea that he wants to make, and giving a long list of scriptures to prove his point.
    It is so much better when our sermons expound the wealth of the Word, rather than the Word proving how smart we are.
    It is amazing how expository preaching covers the entire gamut of life’s issues.

  8. Good lesson. We never want to preach at people, but share what God has shown us. I, too shared the grueling Arneson Hermaneutics class experience. I never put so much time and effort into one project. I hated it at the time, but I learned what it really meant to study the Bible. Thanks, Prof. Arneson and thanks for the reminder, Karl.
    Jerry DiGiacomo

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