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Sermon Prep – Bob Style!


How to Prepare a Sermon

Or, at least, how I do it!

I’ve been asked a few times how I go about preparing a sermon, so, for what it’s worth, here’s my methodology. You are free to disagree with me or to experiment to find out what methods work best for you. This one seems to work best for me. Firstly, a few general principles:

  • Remember that sermon preparation requires SOUL PREPARATION. At every stage of this process, prayer is vital, seeking that God would open His inspired word to the preacher’s mind and heart, and use it for his glory in the lives of the hearers.
  • With that comes THANKSGIVING. We are very privileged to be permitted to handle the Word of God, – we are breaking the bread of life to our listeners. God has given us a sacred trust, called us to preach the word, and we cannot not be humbled and thankful, that we have been so blessed.
  • As Richard Baxter said, we are preaching as dying men, to dying men. We must not lose sight of the importance of our work. Souls, countless millions of them, are leaving this time and going into eternity, with no hope of heaven, and it is our work to throw them the gospel lifeline. There is no room for frivolity and levity or for shoddy workmanship.

In working to prepare messages we are fulfilling the God given task of the preacher, to feed the sheep. We are therefore to ‘study to show yourself approved’.
With these simple principles in mind, how then should a sermon be constructed?

1. First Readings!

  1. Having chosen the text, begin with a straightforward reading of the biblical narrative in your own preferred version. (I like the NKJV – you may prefer the AV, or the ESV – but use a literal translation, not a translation with a large amount of dynamic equivalence, like the NIV, and never a paraphrase, like the Message. Also avoid the Amplified Bible for this early perusal of the text – it gives so many alternative meanings for Greek and Hebrew words, that it can lead you seriously off track).
  2. On your second reading, begin to make notes. Ask what is the CONTEXT of the passage, and if the book. If you are not sure why the book was written, consult a Bible dictionary, or study Bible. Ask how the passage under consideration fits in with the overall theme of the book, and the context of the chapter. Who was it written for and why, by whom and when. Look for the passage’s structure, and the flow of the arguments being made.
  3. Read another translation, different from your first reading, and if possible read a Bible with good study notes, like the ESV Study Bible, or the Reformation Study Bible with notes by RC Sproule or the Reformation Heritage Study Bible with notes by Joel Beeke. Note what they say about the passage.
  4. Read the passage in the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. Try to look up any references given and peruse any ‘chains’ suggested.
  5. If you can read Greek or Hebrew, now’s the time to get out those ancient texts! I like to use my old copy of The Englishman’s Greek New Testament. With its interlinear Greek and English Text, with AV Text down the sides, it is an ideal way to read the Greek Text. I photocopy the page, then look for unfamiliar Greek Words, and look them up in Vines or some other good Greek lexicon, then I annotate the photocopy – so as not to further damage the book, – its type is so small that it’s difficult to underline or write on.

When I feel that I have got a reasonable grasp of the passage I can now draw up my first (draft) outline, with suggested heads and particulars. (Main teaching points and the sub points as indicated within the text – do NOT invent your own teaching points – stick to the text on which you are preaching.)

2. Discovery!
Now it’s time for some extra input. Having tried to exegete the text using only the bible and some study notes, I start to search commentaries for background and any doctrinal or practical emphases that I may have missed. This is the LEARNING part of the preparation.
Which commentaries do I use? Purely personal choice of course, and depending on what is available for the text in question, I read:

  • The ‘Preach the Word’ commentaries. Edited and written (largely) by Kent Hughes, this is seriously one of the best commentary sets on the market at present. They are expensive, but worth every penny, crammed full of good sound exegesis, based on the author’s sermonic materials, and laced with illustrations. Every preacher should invest in these books.
  • James M Boice. His commentary works are invaluable. Doctrinally sound and easy to use.
  • The NIGTC. Now, if you have read the Greek text of your passage, find the New International Greek Text Commentary. It will guide you through the Greek text, explaining unfamiliar words and the exact tense, variations of the Greek roots, – comparing with other texts etc… You will gain a really good insight into the Greek text. Unfortunately these commentaries don’t cover all of the New Testament.
  • IVP’s Tyndale and BST commentary series. Good standard commentaries, these are always my last read, and I usually don’t make notes on them.
  • Large commentaries are also useful, classic among them are Matthew Henry and Matthew Poole.
  • William Barclay! Yes, I know, he’s a liberal! He didn’t believe in the Virgin birth or the resurrection, – yet his books are still in print and you’ll find them in many pastors’ bookshelves. Martyn Lloyd Jones called him “The most dangerous man in Christendom!” But ignore his theology, and read to gain insight into biblical background, and you will find some useful material. I have a complete set of his ‘Daily Study Bible’. PLEASE DONT USE BARCLAY AS YOUR FIRST COMMENTARY.

Many commentaries are now packaged with Bible software, and available quite cheaply. If, like me, you still prefer real books, you can build up a really useful library buying secondhand from sources like Amazon, or

How do I use them?  I read at a desk, with a pen in my hand! I open an A4 pad, and rule a two inch line down the right hand side. I select my chosen commentary, and I make notes down the centre column, in longhand, line by line. I do this on a verse by verse basis, clearly annotating which verse I’m reading about. I write these note in black ink. This usually uses around three pages of the pad. Then I begin to read my second commentary, making notes in the right hand column, in blue ink, but omitting anything that overlaps, again in a verse by verse order. My third commentary reading is added, in red ink, in the same column, and if there’s a fourth, in green ink. I use the left margin for observations, – I amend headings etc as they occur, and I finish the notes with a summary at the end.
The whole point of writing notes in different colours and different sections of the page is to create a visual picture of the page in your mind, that you will remember subconsciously later. This is a technique I learned when studying for theology exams in the days before ‘modules’ and ‘projects’ became part of the assessment methods. I wrote note summaries on postcards, multi-coloured ink and highlights – visual aids which helped the memory, I randomly flicked through them in the train, and believe me it works! Write, colour-in and learn!

Sermon Notes

Here’s what a page of notes looks like!

I cannot stress enough the importance of writing as you read. This is part of the learning process, and if you want to get the meaning of the text embedded in your mind, hand-writing the notes is essential. Typing will not do! We can become so proficient at typing that we can type almost verbatim what a teacher for lecturer says without any thought processes involved. If we make written notes, we must summarise what we are reading or hearing, work out what are the salient points and what can be relegated to secondary importance. Our brains are engaged with what we are writing.
With the reading now complete, I go back to my original outline, and amend it if needed, (in part or in whole), and this will form the skeleton of my final sermon.

3. Pulling it all together!
Ok, so I’m now at the final stage, for I’m ready to type the actual sermon. I type it now, rather than write it by hand, so that it’s easier to see in the pulpit and so that it can then be preserved in hard copy. I lay out the skeleton on the word processor, then, without recourse to my notes I start to write what I have learned. My sermons start with an introduction, the aim of which is to set out in brief what I am going to teach in the sermon; an overview of the passage.

  1. Each point is clearly defined, so that the congregation can follow easily. Alliteration is not necessary, but the headers should be brief and should be easily remembered. It is good to set them out to the congregation after the introduction and two or three are usually enough, although sometimes more are necessary. Within the section that is under a heading, I aim to state a teaching point, then restate the point, demonstrating its doctrinal or practical importance, referring to other Biblical passages, to show its consistency with the Scripture, and finally to provide an illustration which will aid understanding. Biblical illustrations are best, personal illustrations are good, (so long as they don’t involve setting one’s self up as an example, and don’t embarrass family members). Humour must be used with great care.
  2. After the sermon is typed from memory, now is time to go over the notes again, and see if I’ve forgotten anything of importance or if some minor points need tweaked. I NEVER type direct quotes from a commentary without giving a source reference to the Author and title. The purpose of reading commentaries is to LEARN, not to plagiarise someone else’s work. That is why I type sermons with no notes nearby – to make sure that I’m only including what I have learned. The notes can the be used as a final check.
  3. My sermon notes are written out as a full script, because I don’t trust myself to ad-lib, so there’s around 2500 words typed over two pages, and again these pages are highlighted with the colours I have used for decades. Main points in yellow, sub-points in purple, illustrations in green and scripture in orange.
  4. Finally, having the printed copy in my hand, and the digital file safely stored, I make a copy of the file, and reduce the sermon down to one page by removing the illustrations, and any minor points and save this as the study guide, which appears on this website and in hard copy for the congregation, again to assist them as much as possible in comprehending the text, and following along with the sermon.
  • FAQs
    Do you have a set day for sermon prep? No. I couldn’t work in that way at all. A sermon takes a week in preparation, spending an hour or so each day on it. Because my sermon prep method involves learning the material, spacing it out over a number of days gives time to think about each day’s discovery, whether when travelling, or at night during sleepless hours etc. I’d rather prepare two sermons simultaneously than plan and research and write one sermon in a single day.
  • What about devotional reading? I was really hung up about this, and worried that my bible reading was too frequently for sermon prep and not enough for purely devotional purposes. The guilt was assuaged somewhat when I was listening to a panel discussion from a conference, where Dr Albert Mohler stated that his devotional readings were his sermon prep readings. After that I didn’t feel so bad. Always, however, add devotional,Bible readings on days when no sermon prep is planned, and allow time for reading good Christian books too.
  • Do you ever preach the same sermon twice? Yes. And more than twice. Again this used to be a source of guilt, because I used to hear people praying that the Lord would bless whatever He had laid on the preacher’s heart for that congregation – and perhaps I was preaching the same sermon as I’d preached that very morning elsewhere. Not so much now, for if a sermon is worth preparing, it’s worth sharing. Again I was surprised to attend a conference and find a leading pastor and teacher preaching a sermon straight from the pages of a book he’s written. But why not?
  • Why do you include so many Bible references in sermons? One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Let the Bible do its work! God has promised that His Word will not return to him void.

From → Ask the Pastor

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