Many pastors are intimidated by the thought of preaching all the way through an entire book of the Bible. Some fear that congregational excitement will be hard to sustain and that pastor and congregation will get bogged down in an extended series on a single book. Others may want to avoid the stereotype of the tired old expositor relentlessly trudging through questions of grammar and syntactical constructions. Many may even perceive the method as outdated.
However, despite such concerns, we have biblical ground for the ongoing importance of declaring the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) line by line and precept by precept (Isaiah 28:10). How then shall we proceed with preaching books-as-wholes?
In answer to this question, let me suggest five guidelines for preparing to preach an entire book of Scripture.
Begin with a short book.
Many preachers are intimidated by the idea of preaching through whole books because so many books are so very long. This concern is not without validity. Indeed, it is wise to gain some homiletic experience before diving into a series on Romans, Luke or Isaiah. Instead, begin with a short book. Colossians can be preached in nine sermons, Malachi in six or seven and Philemon certainly would not require an extended series.
It is wise to begin with a book that you could preach through in two months or less. Working through several short books through the course of a year or two is great for getting the feel for whole-book preaching and good preparation for working through longer books in the future. It also will help the congregation grow accustomed to listening to an extended series on a single book.
Find the unifying theme of the book.
An essential component of any series is the theme that unifies the sermons within it. A whole-book series is no different. So study the book until you discern the central concern of the author, and show how that concern relates to each passage in your weekly exposition of the text. This will help the congregation understand how the various passages fit together as a whole argument. The lack of a clearly communicated theme leads to the danger of treating each text as independent from the others and undermines the very aim of preaching through books as wholes.
There are a few places to look first for a book's main theme. Always look closely at the book's introductory material. Biblical authors regularly introduce important themes in the opening verses. For example, some understand the first verse of Mark's Gospel as a title, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ." Thus, Mark saw his work as conveying the inaugural elements of Jesus' ministry and the beginning of the Christian faith. Use this to craft the title of your series and focus on the implications of Mark's account of the initial preaching and spread of the gospel in the ministry of Jesus.
A close look at the concluding verses of a book is a worthwhile endeavor, as well. The closing verses often have a recap of the main issues already addressed by the author and frequently highlight the main point to which the biblical author has been driving. The final verses of a book represent the part of the message that the author wants the audience to reflect on as they leave.
For example, the final chapter of 1 Thessalonians focuses on the importance of perseverance unto the day of the Lord, a theme that runs throughout the letter. Each sermon in a series on 1 Thessalonians can be related to the idea of perseverance whether it's the beginning of the race (1 Thessalonians 1), the apostolic example of perseverance (1 Thessalonians 2), exhortation and encouragement to persevere (1 Thessalonians 3), the goal of perseverance (1 Thessalonians 4) or the urgency of perseverance (1 Thessalonians 5). That single theme gives unity to the letter and coherence to the sermon series.
Another important clue can be found in a book's imperatives. What does the author instruct the recipients to do? This is particularly helpful in some of the Pauline letters.
For example, the first imperative in Philippians 1:27, "Only live worthy of the gospel!" Everything else in the letter can be taken as supporting this one command. The Philippian Christians were experiencing pressure and persecution from the outside and strife and division from the inside. Paul wrote with the exhortation to live faithfully to the gospel even in the face of their difficult circumstances. A sermon series on Philippians is faithfully unified around the theme of living worthy of the gospel, and such a theme easily is applied to the pressures and struggles that are common to everyone present in our congregations.
Make each sermon able to stand on its own.
While each sermon should demonstrate how the text in question relates to the major theme of the book, each sermon in a whole book series also should be able to stand alone. This is particularly important in light of the reality that much of your congregation may not hear every sermon in the series. Also, you do not want first-time visitors to feel left out because they were not present for last week's sermon. This can be achieved by keeping the focus on the text at hand.
You will, of course, need to deal with the larger context and that may mean going back to the previous week's text. Instead of saying, "In last week's sermon, we learned that..." you instead could say, "The context of our passage indicates that…" This will help the congregation focus on the current sermon rather than trying to remember what was said last Sunday or feeling like they must catch up for not having been present before.
Begin with a didactic book.
Certain genres of Scripture lend themselves more easily to whole-book preaching. In general, highly didactic texts are more straightforward and easier to explain. Such books will prove more fruitful in maintaining enthusiasm throughout the series on the part of preacher and congregation.
The epistles in the New Testament are good examples of didactic material. They are intended to teach in a straightforward manner. Philippians is full of solid teaching material, including passages on the priority of the gospel, the Person and work of Christ, justification, sanctification, glorification and ethical implications of the gospel for the community of believers. Such a teaching-oriented book contains plenty of material for extended exposition.
The Minor Prophets are also good examples of highly didactic material. They are usually intended to deal with their audience on a few major issues and are often highly applicable to the contemporary setting of the church. Malachi has passages on honoring God, authentic worship, marriage, stewardship and salvation.
When preaching through an entire book, such highly didactic texts are easier to work through than books with extended accounts of historical narrative, for example. Allow your skill in whole book preaching to develop in didactic texts with the goal of preaching an extended narrative in the future.
Plan ahead, and plan for progress.
Take the time before preaching through a book to plan each message in the series. This will help you avoid hurried decisions about textual divisions. Sit down and read through the book, breaking it down into distinct passages you intend to preach. Know ahead of time how many weeks it will take you to preach through a book.
Take time to consider how the overall theme relates to each passage. You will be much more comfortable preaching through a whole book if you know what to expect ahead of time. You always can revise your work as you proceed, but prior planning takes a great deal of the stress away from preaching through an entire book of Scripture.
Plan your series for adequate progress through the book. Be sure to give each passage the time it deserves, but keep in mind that moving too slowly will become laborious to preacher and hearer. A sermon series that deals with only a verse or two at a time can make arduous the preaching of even the shortest books. It also risks taking verses out of context, which once again undermines an important aim of preaching books as wholes.
A well-planned series that progresses through a book at an appropriate pace can yield a likewise appropriate sense of accomplishment for the preacher and the congregation that they have encountered the Word of God in a way that is full, deep and exhaustive.
Preaching through whole books of Scripture is rewarding and deeply satisfying. It provides the preacher and the congregation an opportunity to soak in a single book for an extended period of time and develops homiletic competency with various types of scriptural texts. The discipline has its challenges, though. These five suggestions aim to make the process less intimidating and more fruitful to help preachers faithfully proclaim "the whole counsel of God."