A few years ago I saw a video featuring Tim Keller explaining his philosophy of preaching. He said that a preacher must exegete (interpret) three things. First, he must understand the Scriptures. After all, he is called upon to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). And for a lot of us, that’s where the sermon prep begins and ends. But Keller said that in addition to interpreting the word there are two other important dimensions to preaching. In the second place, we must interpret the times. In other words, what is our culture like, and what challenges/opportunities does the culture present to God’s people? And third, we must understand the people we are preaching to. What is the background of the audience, what problems are they facing, what level of understanding do they possess?
I have pondered this description of preaching many times, but recently it came to the forefront of my mind while teaching First Corinthians 7. In this passage the apostle Paul answers various questions posed by the Corinthians about marriage and celibacy. Think of Keller’s three dimensions in light of Paul’s comments.
First, Paul interpreted Scripture to the Corinthians. Specifically, he applied the words of Jesus to their questions regarding divorce.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife (7:10-11).
He did the same thing in the previous chapter when he discussed the purpose of sexual intimacy, reminding them that the one-flesh relationship is exclusively reserved for marriage according to Genesis 2:24 (1 Corinthians 6:16).
Second, Paul understood the times. He knew that the Corinthians were facing a crisis he calls “the present distress,” and on the basis of this cultural circumstance he advised single people to remain single and avoid the added anxieties of marriage in such difficult circumstances.
I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife (7:26-27).
Third, Paul understood the Corinthians. Even though he preferred that those who were single remain unmarried because of the current crisis, he also understood that not everyone had that capacity. Paul was gifted with the ability to remain celibate, but he understood that many of the Corinthians were not.
But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that (7:28).
And of course, throughout the letter Paul expresses awareness of the level of spiritual maturity of the Corinthians and responds accordingly (as in 3:1-4).
So there you have it – preaching in three dimensions: the word, the times, and the audience. Approaching the ministry of the word in this way enables us to be true to Scripture while also being relevant to the audience in way that glorifies God and serves those we are teaching. And that is what preaching is all about (1 Peter 4:11).