The first sentence I remember reading as a child was, “See Spot run.” The picture book indicated Spot was a dog. See Spot run. What does that even mean?
- [You] see Spot run.
- See Spot run.
- See Spot run.
- See Spot run.
Does it mean “I see the dog run” or “I need to run from the dog” or “the dog needs to run” or what? It depends on the author’s emphasis.
No preaching textbook I’ve read deals substantively with the notion of emphasis. Most never mention it at all. Yet, from my vantage point, it is the greatest weakness in preaching today, even among expositors.
We tend to direct our preaching toward what our culture needs to hear or to what our congregation needs to hear or as a reaction to current events. This is not wrong unless and/or until we begin to tailor the emphasis of God’s dictates to address that culture, need, or event. In doing so, we inherently deny (or at least weaken) the sufficiency of Scripture we claim to uphold. If you write a message to someone, you arrange it in such a way that you want certain things emphasized more than others. When others play loose with your emphasis, you don’t like it a little bit. God is no different.
We often take for granted the level of care and detail God took in bringing His Scripture into existence. He carefully selected His human authors. He brought them into the world in specific places and at strategic times. He raised them, each one differently, giving them unique experiences: Paul had world-class education and training; Peter and John were fishermen; Amos was a shepherd and a keeper of fig trees; Moses was a royal turned shepherd; David was a shepherd turned royal. It’s a remarkable collection of authors.
God used each one’s historical context, personality, and life experiences to reveal Himself to mankind. When you think about all of this detail and specificity, do you think God was any less careful or less intentional in how He arranged the sentences and paragraphs He had them write down?
I don’t, which leads us back to the subject at-hand: Authorial emphasis.
What do we mean by “emphasis?” Emphasis is the degree of attention that should be paid to the meaning and sub-meanings of an author within the sermon event. We make that determination by asking 3 questions:
- What “single meaning” is the human author conveying in this thought-unit?
- What “sub-meanings” (sub-points) feed that single meaning?
- How much weight (emphasis) do we give to each one?
E.D. Hirsch wrote a classic book on authorial intent called Validity in Interpretation. He argues the only valid interpretation is the author’s original meaning. He issued a warning that nearly everyone missed: A different set of emphases can change the author’s meaning. For instance, we can extract and explode a sub-point and give it so much weight that it dominates the author’s main point. In doing so, we have changed the author’s emphasis; and that, in turn, has altered his meaning. That chain of events has a weakening effect on the sufficiency of Scripture.
Drunk With Wine Example
Ephesians 5:18 states, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” We often hear whole sermons (or even series) from this verse on the devastating effects of alcohol and drunkenness. Those devastating effects are true, and they are true from this passage. However, the devastating effects of alcohol and drunkenness are “not” the emphasis of this passage. This verse falls within the larger discussion of “walking in love.” Paul’s emphasis is that we should be controlled by the Spirit, not by worldly forces (like alcohol). He selects alcohol and drunkenness as an illustration, but he could have selected any number of worldly forces that control people: drugs, gambling, porn, money, prestige, etc. What he is emphasizing is this: Don’t be controlled by worldly forces. Rather, be controlled by the Spirit of God. If the weight of our message is entirely or (even nearly entirely) dedicated to the poisonous effects of winebibbing, then we have missed Paul’s point entirely regarding the righteous effects of the Spirit-filled life.
To truly uphold the sufficiency of Scripture, we must emphasize what God emphasizes . . . to the degree He emphasizes it. That emphasis is found in the syntactical structures the author uses, and it must carry over into our homiletics (i.e., sermon/teaching presentation). This will be reflected in the amount of time you devote to the main point and any sub-points. Of course, your syntactical breakdown (discussed in our earlier hermeneutics articles) will serve as your guide here, which is why we spent so much time meticulously detailing the hermeneutical process.
Great Commission Example
The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is a clean example of this: Go ye therefore and make disciples . . . Most often, when you hear this preached, the emphasis is on the word, “Go” (indeed, I once met a man in seminary nobly named, “Go-ye,” in honor of this verse—one of my favorite names!). The thrust of the sermon—almost always—is on “going” with the gospel: evangelism and missions.
Yet, a closer study reveals something else at play. “Going” is not the emphasis of the passage at all. The main verb is: “Make disciples.” Therefore, the emphasis of the passage is: “Make disciples.” All the other actions in the passage are participles. As such, they are subordinate to the controlling verb. Thus, “make disciples” is the main verb (main point). “Going,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” are under its authority (sub-points). This should be reflected in our homiletics (sermon/teaching presentation).
Extracting a sub-point—”Going“—and making it dominate the main point changes the author’s meaning entirely. And why arbitrarily extract and explode “Go” instead of “baptize” or “teaching” anyway? All are participles of equal force. Likely, we do so because in English (and in Greek) that word is placed first in the sentence. Yet, in doing so, we inadvertently have changed the biblical author’s emphasis from “discipleship” to “evangelism.”
A Quick Thought
You never know how the Spirit will work when you honor His emphasis. A couple once joined our congregation and became solid members. Later, he told me one reason he joined was because of the Great Commission sermon. It was the first time he’d ever heard that passage preached in a way that honored and preserved the way God wrote it.
Try it. Perhaps this little-known principle will keep you from blushing on the final day. After all, teachers will be held to a stricter judgment (James 3:1).
 This is my rewording of the definition provided by E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 99.