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Text-Driven Preaching and Linguistics: What the Preacher Must Know to be a Good Exegete

The painstaking work of exegesis is the foundation for text-driven preaching.[1] Exegesis precedes theology, and theology is derived from careful exegesis. To preach well, it is vital to understand certain basics about the nature of language and meaning.

First, the hierarchy of language is such that words are combined into larger units of meaning. Words combine to form phrases; phrases combine to form clauses; clauses combine to form sentences; sentences combine to form paragraphs; and paragraphs combine to form discourses. When it comes to a text of scripture, however long or short, the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.

When it comes to a text of scripture, however long or short, the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.

Second, language units of meaning cluster together to form other units of meaning. Take, for example, Philemon 13: “I would have preferred that I keep Onesimus here with me in order that he might serve me while I am in prison because I preached the gospel.” Notice that the first two propositions combine to form a single unit of meaning: “I would have preferred,” (expresses Paul’s desire) and “that I keep Onesimus here with me” (expresses the content of that desire). Notice that the latter two propositions: “while I am here in prison” (a temporal clause) and “because I preached the gospel” (a purpose clause) likewise combine to form a unit of meaning. Notice also that this unit of meaning: “while I am here in prison because I preached the gospel” is combined with the proposition “in order that he might serve me,” (a larger purpose clause explaining the reason for Paul’s desire to keep Onesimus with him). Together these three propositions form a single unit of meaning: “in order that he might serve me while I am here in prison because I preached the gospel.” When propositions 1-2 are combined with 3-5, the full meaning of Philemon 13 results.[2]

Third, Philemon 13 also illustrates the linguistic concept of “embedding,” where a clause can embed several phrases or another clause and a sentence may embed with it several clauses or sentences. Consider the sentence “I went downtown, but Mary stayed home.” This sentence actually embeds two sentences: “I went downtown,” and “Mary stayed home.” These two sentences are coordinated in an adversative fashion by the conjunction “but.” In 1 John 1:5, the dependent clause “that God is light and in him is no darkness at all” embeds two sentences: “God is light,” and “In him is no darkness at all.” The second sentence is connected to the first sentence with the coordinating conjunction “and,” but semantically, the actual meaning conveyed could be construed in a cause-effect fashion: “because God is light there is no darkness in him at all.” Finally, notice that this clause (introduced by the Greek conjunction hoti, “that”), serves to identify the content of the message which the apostles declared: “God is light. . . .”

A fourth linguistic principle worth noting is language makes use of content words and function words. Content words are such parts of speech as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Function words are articles, prepositions and conjunctions. Content words derive their basic meaning from the lexicon of the language. Function words derive their functional meaning from the grammar and syntax of the language. Of course lexicon, grammar, and syntax combine to give content words and function words their meaning in a given text. It is especially important in text-driven preaching to pay close attention to the function words in a text.

For example, the Greek conjunction gar always introduces a sentence or a paragraph that is subordinate to the one preceding it,[3] and usually signals that what follows will give the grounds or reason for that which precedes. This is immensely important in exegesis and sermon preparation.

Fifth, proper exegesis requires knowledge of the verbal structure of the passage. If you are remodeling your home and you desire to convert two small rooms into one larger room, you must remove the wall that separates the two rooms. As long as that wall is a non-load-bearing wall, it can be removed with no problem. However, if the wall is a load-bearing wall, removing it would cause the roof to cave in. Verbs are the load-bearing walls of language. Understanding their function within your text is vital to identifying the correct meaning which the author wants to convey.


[1] “No man will succeed in expository preaching unless he delights in exegetical study of the Bible, unless he loves to search out the exact meaning of its sentences, phrases, words. In order to do this, knowledge of the original languages of Scripture is desirable” (Broadus, Preparation, 326).

[2] See the discussion of this verse in Beekman, Callow and Kopesec, Semantic Structure, 18. See also J. Beekman and J. Callow, Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 365.

[3] Friberg and Friberg, The Analytical Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 834.

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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