In the last four articles we have seen how to preach Bible stories by using running narrative, why preachers should be transparent in their sermons, the importance of keeping your sermons biblical, balanced, and brief, and why you must let your sermons change you before preaching them to others. Let’s see another tip that can transform your delivery:
5. The Key to Understanding a Passage Is the Definition of Words
William Ball was a constitutional lawyer in the early 70’s that stepped up to the plate for Christian schools in America. He fought cases all the way up to the U. S. Supreme Court. I was a “young buck” just coming out of college at the time, and somehow I ended up getting to have dinner with Mr. Ball. He said something rather profound: “The highest level of psychological warfare is a confusion of terms.” As a twenty-year-old, I was trying to figure this all out, and he said, “When you are in a court of law, the definitions of words are the most important thing.”
If we are using words that have more than one meaning, the people could be thinking something completely different than what we are teaching. Have you ever wondered why your people didn’t get what you preached the week before? They probably had a different definition for the words you used. You need to make sure you define your words, and that you know the words you’re using.
I came from a Catholic background and my dad didn’t get saved until twenty-five years after I got saved. One time, when I was coming back home as a college senior, driving to Traverse City, Michigan, I was talking about the Lord to my Dad. He pulled off to the side of the road, steaming mad. He said “Jimmy, I don’t want to hear anything more, and you don’t have to worry about your dad. You’re talking about ‘saved by grace’ and I am ‘saved by grace.’ I have lived a good life, I’ve tried my hardest, and I’m saved by the same grace you are.” And I was sitting there thinking, “I think Dad and I have a different definition of grace.” This is the most subtle thing the Catholic church has done. They define words differently. Any grace that takes sacraments to get it is no longer grace. If you went to my father at that time and asked him, “Are you saved by grace, sir?” he would have said, “Yes,” but his definition of grace was different.
Have you ever wondered why your messages don’t seem to connect with your people? It may be that they do not know the definitions of the words you’re using. Maybe you’re using words that you think everybody knows, but the truth is they may not. Have you ever defined grace for your people? We use these terms, but do we ever take time to define them?
In Matthew 24:35 the Bible says, “My words shall not pass away.” Since God chose His words carefully, it makes sense that we should study them. When I study a passage of Scripture, I take a legal pad and write down every important word in that passage, and then I get the definitions of those words. It is amazing what happens when you find out the definitions of the words and start understanding the context of them. You will be a lot less in the commentaries and spending much more time in God’s Word with the Holy Spirit guiding and directing you.
I think our usual approach as we come to a passage is that we immediately get the commentaries down to see what they say, but we need to study the passage on our own by getting the definitions of the words. You don’t have to get the Greek definitions; get a Webster’s 1828 dictionary and find out the definitions of the words in your King James Bible.
You also need to come up with some of your own definitions. I really mean that. Coming up with your own definitions helps you to teach those definitions to other people.
Here are two of the words that I have my own definitions for: leadership: “taking the initiative to meet the needs of those under my authority with a servant’s spirit.” Bitterness: “the unresolved violation in your justice system.” I have seen revival in young people’s hearts just by giving the definition of bitterness. These are both definitions that I came up with for those words. You may ask, “Where did you come up with them?” As I studied God’s Word, I put these definitions together, then I taught the definitions.
Let me end with an illustration of why it is important to define the words you use in your sermons. I preach a message called “Seven Steps to Perfect Dating,” and often people will say, “Oh Brother Schettler, we don’t believe in that dating thing, we believe in courtship. Dating isn’t in the Bible.”
I respond with something like, “Well here’s my Strong’s concordance—where’s the word courtship in the Bible?”
“It may not have that exact word in the Bible, but courtship is the biblical way!”
“Have you heard my seven steps to perfect dating?”
“No, it doesn’t matter, you used the word dating.”
“Wait till you hear me define dating.” Then I hear, “Oh, your definition of dating is what I call courtship.” It’s all in how you define the terms.
Definitions are huge in helping to understand a passage and transferring the truths to other people. The key to understanding passages is the definitions of words.