One of the most undervalued skills for effective preaching is Scripture saturation. With the dominance of a media culture, the perceived need for being thoroughly saturated with texts in general and the biblical storyline in particular has diminished. In T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach he argues that much of the banal, self-oriented, cliché-ridden, how-to preaching found in conservative pulpits is not simply a choice of style but the default hermeneutic for a generation who cannot read texts closely or write well ordered compositions. He contends that this inhibits the preacher in his ability to think through and communicate the significance of the biblical text.
Thus, talk of the biblical storyline, organic unity, unifying theme, or interpretation and application mediated through Christ is an unknown tongue to many. It is easier to profess the inerrancy of the Bible but read every passage as though it is all about you, jumping immediately from every text to a superficial application to your life. Even the technologically advanced computer based Bible study tools available today can become a curse rather than a blessing to the preacher if convenience prevents meditation on the actual text of Scripture. T. David Gordon warns preachers, “There is a profound difference between reading information and reading texts. . . . Reading a text is a laboriously slow process.” (Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, 43).
Many preachers simply do not know the big picture and overarching storyline of Scripture well enough to draw out the connections and literary patterns found in the biblical narrative. Nothing can take the place of being saturated with Scripture and being familiar with the flow of biblical redemptive history. Only when one’s mind is drenched with the whole counsel of God’s word will one be able to grasp the biblical worldview, which presents itself most often in symbol, pattern, and allusion. An atomistic approach to understanding Scripture often severs a particular truth from the biblical storyline and presents it as the whole truth. The result is a failure to cultivate a gospel-centered worldview. Instead hearers possess a smorgasbord of isolated truths that do not cohere and are simply absorbed into an existing worldview framed by the wisdom of the world.
There is great danger in preaching the Bible as a series of isolated doctrines or stories without seeing where it all fits in the unified narrative of redemptive history. All of the stories told in the Scripture are really episodes in the larger story of the kingdom of God in Christ. To be rightly interpreted, each part must be understood in light of the whole. The preacher can do this only if he has a grasp of redemptive history and biblical literature. As Peter Leithart explains,
The Bible tells one story. It is a long and complicated story about events that took place over several thousand years, but even so it is one story. Like most good stories, the most exciting and important points come toward the end. In this case, the most important part comes when Jesus is born, lives, dies on the cross, rises again, and ascends to heaven. But to know why Jesus comes and what He is doing when he dies and rises again, we need to know the story that goes before. A man kisses a sleeping woman in a wood and she awakes. That’s a nice ending to a story, but if we don’t know the woman is Sleeping Beauty and the man is Prince Philip, then we don’t know the story very well. A beginning is nothing without an ending, but an ending without a beginning isn’t worth much either (A House for My Name, 43).
Apostolic preaching reveals men who were saturated with Scripture and viewed Jesus and his kingdom as the hermeneutical key for understanding every text. For example, in Acts 7, Stephen is brought before the high priest on trumped up charges of blasphemy. His response is not an attempt to gain acquittal but rather a biblical-theological sermon on Old Testament history—specifically, how the Christ informs it (referring to the following Old Testament texts by quote, allusion or paraphrase in Acts 7: Gen 12:1; 15:13-14; 48:4; 46:27; Ex 1:8; 2:14; Ex 3:6, 15; Ex 3:5, 7-8, 10; Deut 18:15; Ex 32:1, 23; Amos 5:25-27; and Is 66:1-2). John Stott writes, “Stephen’s mind had evidently soaked up the Old Testament, for his speech is like a patchwork of allusions to it” (The Message of Acts, 130).
Stephen reminds his hearers that, throughout Israel’s history, God kept sending deliverers, but the Jews kept rejecting them, just as they had done with the ultimate deliverer: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:52). James D. G. Dunn writes, “The betrayal and murder of God’s Righteous One (Jesus—see 3:14) is simply the climax of Israel’s history of rejection” (The Acts of the Apostles, 98).
The comprehensive use of the Old Testament by Stephen and the other preachers in Acts to preach the gospel of the kingdom is all the more remarkable when one considers that they did not carry scrolls around with them. They did this from memory. Wagner reminds,
They did not carry their Bibles with them, much less notes of significant points and passages they wished to refer to in the course of their sermons. The Word they used was in their minds. In Stephen’s sermon he was able to range broadly over Old Testament history, because he had a fluent grasp of the content of the Scriptures. He had treasured up the Word of the Lord in his heart (Tongues Aflame, 193-194).
This is precisely where many preachers fail. It is convenient to be microscopic and have a minimalistic approach to interpretation and proclamation when one is not familiar with the literary styles, genres, themes, patterns, and typological structures of Scripture. Preachers must be committed to understanding the Scriptures by reading forward and backward in their Bibles. The preacher should take note of every quotation of the Old Testament in the New Testament but must also be aware when reading the Old Testament of New Testament citations and allusions. We must not forsake divinely inspired commentary on the Old Testament. These New Testament passages provide fixed references and commit us to particular interpretations.
It was Scripture saturation that led the Apostles, after the resurrection and ascension, to preach Jesus and his kingdom as the key to all of Scripture and to view the Old Testament as their foundational missionary text. Michael Horton writes,
We come to every passage knowing a lot of other passages, and this naturally predisposes our reading of each text. Jesus Christ, then, is the interpretive key to Scripture, the grand prejudice that we bring with us to every passage simply because all of Scripture testifies to him as this plot’s central character. It is a faithful prejudice because it is cultivated in us by the Scripture itself. And it is as true of the Old Testament as the New. . . . It is his plot that opens Genesis and closes Revelation, climaxing in his own incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and return in glory (A Better Way, 85-86).
How do we saturate ourselves with Scripture? Nothing can replace the work of spending vast amounts of time reading and meditating on the biblical text. Below are some suggestions that have proved helpful to me.
- Make it a daily practice to read large portions of Scripture without slowing down or pausing using some kind of systematic reading plan.
- Also, make it a daily practice to have a particular book of the Bible that you spend time in each day reading slowly and meditating on each thought as you read.
- Make it a weekly habit to memorize some section of Scripture.
In other words, each day should involve some fast-paced Bible reading, some slow-paced Bible reading, and some time memorizing Scripture. I recommend that these daily habits be in addition to the passages that you are studying to preach and teach for the week. To accomplish this you will have to take charge of your schedule and structure your time to prioritize these disciplines.
- Make it a regular practice to read the Bible aloud and to listen to it read aloud in a formal equivalent translation. The Scripture is not simply meant to be read silently but to be heard (Rom 10:14-18). There are exegetical clues, insights, and understanding that can be gained by listening to the Scripture. The Bible possesses a symphonic musical quality with rhythm, repetition, and cadence.
- Attempt to remember and locate verses and references in your Bible before turning to the concordance and computer searches to find what you are looking for in the Scripture.
- Have a particular reading Bible that you mark up in whatever way you deem helpful to aid you in saturating yourself with Scripture. Develop your own marking or color-coding system to remind you of themes, allusions, symbols, types, epochs, etc.
- Read vast amounts of all different kinds of literature to gain a sense of how texts and genres work. Kindles and various types of e-readers mean that we can carry a library with us at all times. Redeem all of the spare moments by reading.
- Think about how plot, story, and irony work in movies, songs, and comedy. Consider parallels in the way the biblical story unfolds.