By Bobby Witherington
When I received the request to write an article on “Semonettes,” my first mental response was, “Why me?” I confess to regularly having difficulty completing a sermon within the recommended “time limit” though no one seems to know why the time should be so limited. Then I thought of the saying, “sermonettes are preached by preacherettes and they produce Christianettes.” But lest I become too critical of those “preacherettes” who continually preach “sermonettes,” a friend of mine reminded me that I have preached a lot of “sermonettes!” Mention was then made of our daily three-minute Dial-a-Bible Message program which we began in November 1978. Mention was also made of our daily radio program, which is 15 minutes in length, but which only allows for about 13 minutes of actual preaching. This gives me the dubious honor or being critical of “sermonettes,” even though I preach them on a daily basis! At least, this proves that I can preach a short sermon though honesty compels me to admit that these telephone messages and radio “sermons” are more like pieces of sermons which are usually linked together in serial fashion.
On this subject, it is difficult to be completely objective and totally unbiased. This is a fact, regardless of whether it is being considered by the man standing in the pulpit or the one sitting in the pew. So, to avoid creating prejudice on the part of either, I deem it wise to approach the subject from the standpoint of the sermon itself and that of which the sermon should consist.
Perhaps to the surprise of some, the word “sermon” is found in the dictionary but not in the Bible. The American College Dictionary gives this definition: “a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, esp. one based on a text of Scripture and delivered from a pulpit.” I was a bit amused to observe from the same source a secondary definition for this word: “a long tedious speech.”
Hence, a “sermon” is “a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation A “sermon”is what people hear when a man obeys the injunction to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). A “sermon” is what the Jews on the day of Pentecost heard when the apostles began to carry out the Lord’s command to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark. 16:15; Acts 2:14-40). Properly understood, a sermon consists of at least five important ingredients: explanation, argument, illustration, application, and exhortation.
1. Explanation. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles were miraculously enabled to speak with other tongues (or languages) as “the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-6). This caused the multitude to express amazement, and others to mockingly say, “These men are full of new wine” (Acts 2:7-13). It was at this point that Peter addressed the crowd and began explaining the events of that day in the light of Old Testament prophecy and its fulfillment (Acts 2:14-21). Perhaps it would not be too far amiss to say that Peter then announced his sermon topic as being “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God . . .” (Acts 2:22). Suffice it to say, Peter, like Paul, preached “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
2. Argument. Peter appealed to the “miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by” Christ in the midst of the people, and of which the people in his audience were fully aware (Acts 2:22; cf. John 3:2; 7:3 1; 9:16). Peter then mentioned the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and appealed to the prophets of old as proof of the facts that the resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of Christ were in fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 2:23-35; cf. Psa. 16:8-11; 132:11; 2 Sam. 7:12,13).
3. Illustration. One prime purpose in preaching is to make people “see” or understand the truth about Christ and the salvation He offers (Eph. 3:8,9). A good illustration can figuratively “turn the light on” and indelibly impress a previously stated truth upon the mind, causing the eyes of the understanding to be “enlightened” (cf. Eph. 1:18). This was the effect of the numerous parables uttered by our Lord (Matt 13). This was the effect of the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal. 4:21-31). Illustrations are given to create interest, clarify the truths being presented, and cause the audience to remember the truth which the illustrations are designed to illuminate.
4. Application. What is a sermon without application? Usually it is an exercise in futility! Hence, David finally got the point when Nathan said, “Thou art the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). The Jews on Pentecost got the point when Peter said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Also, through appropriate application specific suggestions are made in which the audience may be shown how to do what truth requires, For example, the Christian is to teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). But how does one proceed in such a noble endeavor? By means of application, a number of effective teaching methods could be mentioned.
5. Exhortation. When the “pricked in the heart” Jews cried out saying, “What shall we do,” Peter immediately responded with the correct information-“repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins . . .” (Acts 2:38). But his message still continued! Peter mentioned the “promise” unto them, their children, those “afar off,” and then “with many other words,” he testified and exhorted, saying, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:39,40). Who can possibly believe that either Peter or his audience had their eyes glued on the time clock, as if some awful crime would be committed if he went “a few minutes overtime”?
How Long Should A Sermon Be?
It should be long enough to get the job done! And if a sermon does indeed consist of such things as explanation, argument, illustration, application, and exhortation, then the actual “job” can seldom be done in the length of time brethren generally want to devote to the hearing of the gospel of Christ. This is not to say that all sermons should be of the same length, nor that any sermon should be deliberately drawn out in order to consume a certain amount of time. A five minute sermon (?) is too long if the speaker has nothing to say! There is a vast difference between the preacher who has something to say and the preacher (?) who just has to say something. When brethren are expected to listen to a windbag whose message consists of all thunder and no lightning, they have every right to complain when the speaker can not turn off the sounding off.
Of course, it must be admitted that some speakers, for various reasons, are easier to listen to than others. To illustrate, I relate (at my expense) the following incident: A number of years ago, while laboring in another city, one of the young men, a member of the church, was scheduled to be married on a particular Sunday afternoon. On the morning of the wedding, a very dear and very elderly sister in Christ approached me, and she politely said, “Brother Witherington, it is hard for some of us elderly members to get through lunch and rush back in time for the wedding this afternoon, so I wish you would make the sermon a little shorter this morning.” I was not too pleased with that request. It seemed to me that she was putting the emphasis in the wrong place. And I tried to tactfully express my reasoning to this lady. Then I waxed eloquent. Or so I thought. I related the incident in which “Raccoon” John Smith rode a horse to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, to hear Alexander Campbell preach. At the conclusion of the sermon John Smith was indignant and said, “I have come all this distance to hear this man and he only preached 30 minutes.” Then someone said, Brother Smith, look at your watch; you have been here two hours and a half I” Then I made application, saying, “We ought to be like Raccoon John Smith; he was so wrapped up in hearing the gospel preached that he was oblivious to the time.” At that point this dear sister looked at me, smiled very sweetly, and said, “I’ve heard preachers who could do that to me, tool ” What more could I say? I knew she was telling the truth. Some preachers are easier to listen to than others. And any preacher who expects people to listen to him, however long it takes to get the message across, has an obligation to do all within his power to make the message as profitable as possible.
And those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matt. 5:6) will not begrudge the time it takes. But this is the problem! Too many brethren are so wrapped up in the things of this world that they have precious little appetite for real “soul food.” Many have never experienced the kind of desire for the “sincere milk” (or the meat) of the word as is commanded in 1 Peter 2:1,2.
Well, do I remember attending a gospel meeting several years ago, in which the preaching was being done by one who is widely recognized as one of the ablest preachers of our time. The meeting had gone beyond the half-way mark, and the crowds were getting smaller. A brother remarked to the visiting preacher that “people are staying away because the sermons are too long.” To that statement the preacher grunted in righteous disgust and said, “Some people don’t have time to go to heaven!” How sad! Yet, how true! But some of the same people find time to sit on hard bleachers in the rain for hours to watch a football game. And when it goes into overtime, they are ecstatic! And they can stay up on Saturday night to watch the late, late show on the idiot box.
Please do not misunderstand! I do not believe a preacher should see how long he can stretch out a sermon. I believe there is merit in these words by Henry Ward Beecher, “A good fireman will send the water through as short and straight a hose as he can.” It is possible for a preacher to make his “hose” too long and too crooked. In short, some sermons are too long.
When Is A Sermon Too Long?
1. A sermon is too long when it contains false doctrine. Elders must learn that the mouths of gainsayers “must be stopped,” and that God put them in the mouth-stopping business (Tit. 1:9-11).
2. A sermon is too long when it is filled with flattery. Of course, there is a difference between “giving honor to whom honor is due” for the sake of encouragement, and the dispensing of flattery for the purpose of using people. Both the flatterer and the false teacher manage to “make merchandise” (2 Pet. 2:3; 1 Thess. 2:5) of the very people who they pretend to help.
3. A sermon is too long when precious time is spent bragging on self. To the saints at Corinth Paul said of him and Apollos that they were simply “ministers by whom ye believed” (1 Cor. 3:5). When a preacher gets himself between Christ and the audience, he is in the wrong place. Proud, puffed-up, arrogant, egotistical preachers who act and talk as if they are the “saviors” of the church have too much in common with first century Pharisees-the very ones whom Jesus most severely denounced!
4. A sermon is too long when it is used to build up some human organization, regardless of how worthy it may be. The church is the only institution Jesus purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28), and the church is the only institution in which, to enter, one must be washed from his sins in the blood of Jesus.
5. A sermon is too long when time is used for asking questions which engender doubt. When a preacher goes around sounding an “uncertain sound” (1 Cor. 14:8), he should be marked as “unsound”! There is too much doubt already in the world. Why should a preacher mimic the ways of the devil by increasing that doubt?
6. A sermon is too long when the time is spent grinding axes instead of preaching the gospel. Yes, we have all been mistreated by some. But the pulpit is no place to give vent to every personal grievance and every injustice, whether real or imagined. Some people still assemble with the hope that they might “see Jesus” (John 12:21). And if all they are made to “see” is how the preacher has been mistreated, they might go away feeling sympathy for the preacher. But they will not go away converted!
This is a “touchy subject.” So I have tried to touch it. I hope something has been said to provoke thought. Surely a gospel preacher is one who has been “allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel” (1 Thess. 2:4), and he ought to do all within his power to prove himself worthy of that trust. Proper use of the pulpit demands that the preacher take enough time to say what ought to be said-and to do so whether people like it or not. However, “a sermon does not have to be eternal in order to be immortal.” Perhaps the best way for a preacher to both please God and benefit the audience is for him to “Stand up, speak up, and then shut up!”
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 9, pp. 269-271
May 2, 1985