Some true sermons are boring, and this should not be tolerated by the preacher because he stands in the most vital office on earth. To bore someone with that which is most beautiful? To tire someone’s mind with the message that is the pinnacle of wisdom?
I have experienced a share of boring preachments as have many who are reading this. I have also heard some of the most fascinating preachers including Martin Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, Mark Minnick, and John Piper. What makes these communicators so engaging? Books on preaching will give us a number of answers including the Holy Spirit’s unique blessing, their personal emotional power, the beauty of their language, and the clarity with which they explain the Biblical text.
Preaching is largely teaching. Jesus Christ taught the people (Matt. 5:2), and the Great Commission commands us to do the same to all the peoples of the world (Matt. 28:19-20). One vital, but often overlooked aspect of teaching is insight. Good teachers are insightful, and bad teachers are superficial, obvious, and predictable.
Writing on such a subject should imply that boring sermons are far too common, and that insight deserves more attention in homiletics, not that the present writer can say anything other than the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
What is insight and how can its lack be cured? Insight is the aspect of teaching that interests, stimulates, and raises the mind. However, like a scent or a beautiful painting it is more easily recognized than defined in words.
Though it may be hard to define, here are six categories by which to think about insight including a pair of examples from Scripture.
1. Insight is making true, but commonly overlooked connections between ideas.
Both Samson and Christ accomplished more in their deaths than they did in their lives. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life. Judges 16:30
Eve is called Adam’s helper in Gen. 2:18, but God is also called Israel’s helper with the same Hebrew word in Psalm 30:10.
2. Insight is seeing from unexpected perspectives so that what was hidden is now in the open.
For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory (2 Tim. 2:10). Sovereign election encourages us to keep going as missionaries. It doesn’t stop us from evangelizing.
Is Christ our example? Not in everything. Christ is not a complete example for sinners because he never knew what it was to repent of sin (Heb. 4:15).
3. Insight is grasping the relationship of individual parts to the larger system.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, (Eph. 5:25). Christ died with a special intention for His bride. There was a love for her that He did not have for others.
And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” (Matt. 19:4). Adam and Eve were created at the beginning of time, therefore, no form of evolution can fit with Biblical Christianity.
4. Insight is weighing the importance of different parts of the whole so that their relative value is apparent to each other and in light of the larger body.
Christ commands us both to be baptized and to believe on Him. The second command is more important, unless the manner of denying the first command is actually a repudiation of his Lordship.
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet (1 Tim. 2:11-12).” This doctrine is not as vital to Christianity as believing that Jesus Christ is God (1 John 5:1). However, if allowing a woman to preach is covering for a settled refusal to bow to Christ as Lord, then it is indicative of a kind of apostasy.
5. Insight is stretching past the explicit statements to a logically coherent, Biblically sanctioned conclusion that often escapes the notice of others.
God loves the world (John 3:16), and God hates sinners (Psalm 5:5). Therefore, in the mind of God lies an infinite ability such that he can express both love and hate to the same being at the same time.
The last verse in Jonah says, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” God has special compassion for infants and even animals.
6. Insight is attaching the right metaphor to the right affection.
Christ loves us like a husband, not a boyfriend.
A sinner has followed his lusts like an insane person (Tit. 1:15), not merely someone who made a mistake.
In each of these six categories, there are factors that make insight uncommon. Usually it has to do with time for reflection, but presuppositions also open or close or minds to insight. In other words, insight is finding a piece of the puzzle that was not made explicit.
Here are five methods exemplified by the best preachers and found in works like Watts’ Logic.
1. Read insightful authors or talk to insightful people.
Since we learn by imitation, draw near to those who have the qualities of speech and mind that you want to see in yourself. If you are not insightful and if you have no interest in being insightful, you will not enjoy spending time with those who are. But if you have a great desire to grow in this skill, you will find yourself pulled to these men who are above you, even if you can’t understand everything they say.
2. Teach your eyes to see the big picture.
One way to do this is to practice the art of summarizing. Try to summarize the Bible in one sentence. Then the NT. Then the OT. Then individual books. For example, Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, broke all of life into 15 categories in an effort to comprehend the whole of the universe under the authority of Christ.
a. Numerical aspect: amount
b. Spatial aspect: continuous extension
c. Historical aspect: flowing movement
d. Physical aspect: energy, matter
e. Organic aspect: life functions, self-maintenance
f. Mental aspect: feeling and response
g. Logical aspect: distinction, conceptualization
h. Scientific aspect: formative power, achievement, technology, technique
i. Lingual aspect: symbolic communication
j. Social aspect: social interaction
k. Economic aspect: frugal use of resources
l. Aesthetic aspect: harmony, surprise, fun
m. Political aspect: due, rights, responsibility
n. Ethical aspect: self-giving love
o. Religious aspect: faith, vision, commitment, belief
What makes this list insightful? He tried to grasp all of reality in less than half a page. In order to do this he had to define each of these categories carefully. His definitions for individual parts of the system had to fit smoothly with all the other parts.
Biblical Theology tries to look at the Bible this way. This discipline attempts to show how history has one main story, and all the little episodes are just scenes in this greater drama.
3. Closely related to this practice is the ability to make definitions.
Your mind must become accustomed to learning clear definitions for the broadest categories of life. A mind sharpened by a mastery of logic will cut hearts. This point is a summary of Watts’ Logic (pages 99-113, Soli Deo Gloria reprint) where he teaches us to define things in two steps: First, determine the basic attribute of a thing, and second, search for the essential difference—how that thing differs from all others in its category.
A mind that defines clearly will more quickly notice when his thought and preaching are disconnected. He will also be able to make connections with other ideas more fluently since he can define them as well.
4. Learn to see the world through analogies.
An analogy is a comparison, like this sentence. The Bible is filled with analogies because that is the way God has made our minds to think. The right analogies, comparisons, and metaphors (like that list) are the best use of language because they carry not just denotations but connotations—not just propositions but affections as well. What are these comparisons supposed to do to our minds?
a. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Husband of the Church.
b. God is our Father, our King, our Judge, our Shield, our Song.
c. The devil is Satan (which means enemy in Hebrew).
d. The church is like a light, a city on a hill, a temple, a house, a body, a bride, and a nation.
e. A sinner is a goat, a child of Satan, a weed, dead, a plant with no roots, and a criminal.
f. False teachers are animals, trees of a different kind, dead trees, and casual workers.
g. The Christian life is a journey, a war, a building project, farming a field, and a business venture.
h. Salvation is being brought out of slavery, being raised to life, being discharged from prison, and being adopted to a new family.
5. Look for new (yet Biblical) ways to say things.
If you are preaching on repentance again, find some new way to get that same old truth. Metaphors show there worth here.
If you’re always saying, “You must repent!” Try saying, “Are you a prodigal? When will you turn your eyes to your Father?”
If you’re always saying, “Believe in Christ!” Try saying, “Hide yourself under the cross!”
Insight is such a great gift, it will not come without hard work over a long period of time. Maybe the government will give someone a degree for free, but no one will become insightful for free. We are an era of surface gliders. So our preachers are as well, but who can listen to that each week for an hour? May we find grace to speak in a manner worthy of an oracle of God.