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mark keown – letters as sermons

As those of us who are evangelical believe, the Bible is our primary resource for preaching. Our role is to stand in the tradition of the apostles and preach the living gospel which is found within the Scriptures. But there is another dimension to consider. The Bible is itself a training ground for preaching. The New Testament is full of sermons and we can study these as sermons and learn a lot about preaching from the way that the writers of the New Testament preached (see

Here I want to show how this works for one letter, Philippians, a letter I spend a lot of time studying. Rhetorical Criticism is a means of analysis which treats the New Testament letters as speeches, comparing them with Graeco-Roman speech forms. A number of scholars have sought to interpret Philippians in this way. While their ideas are debated and most scholars agree that the letters do not quite fit this form, but rather blend a variety of letter and speech forms, the overall point that the letters were also speeches is undeniable. They were written with the intention of being read aloud by the letter’s deliverer; in the case of Philippians, probably Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30; 4:18). This means we can look at Philippians as a sermon and we can gain some insight into how to preach from it.

Philippians is kind of a macro-sermon in that it addresses a whole church and its issues. It is as if the church’s senior leader is challenging the church to rediscover its core values and get back to basics. It begins with thanksgiving and prayer which alert us to the issues at stake, ‘partnership in the gospel’ (1:5) and love (1:9-10) i.e. unity in living and sharing the gospel. There is a personal story of Paul’s situation in 1:12-26 where the focus is the gospel’s advance, unity and hope. Through the story the Philippians are urged to continue to engage in evangelistic mission, to be unified unlike the divided Romans, and to be confident and joyful that God will bring them through their challenges.

Philippians 1:27-2:18 gives the first direct appeal of the letter. It is cleverly constructed with 1:27-2:4 essentially paralleling 2:12-18 with two great parallel commands: ‘live as citizens (of heaven on earth) worthy of the gospel of Christ’ and ‘work out your salvation’ (1:27; 2:12). The Philippians are to consider what heavenly citizenship and the life of salvation looks like, and live it. These commands are developed with specifics emphasising unity, perseverance, hope, joy, love and continued mission engagement. One thing that stands out in Philippians is that Paul continually comes back to the same points again and again through the letter, but describes them differently cumulatively calling for his hoped for response. Good sermons do this. In the centre of passage in 2:5-8 is the core example of the letter, Jesus. Paul here picks up what may be a well-known hymn and presents Christ as the core pattern. Great sermons always point to Jesus and bring it back to him. He is our salvation and our example.

This is followed by two illustrations that they can connect with, one of the church’s other founders Timothy and their own apostle Epaphroditus. These two embody the Christ-pattern of 2:5-11 of selflessness, sacrifice, service, gospel engagement, courage, humility and love. Good sermons bring things home with examples.

Philippians 3 addresses an external challenge, false teaching. The enemies are identified (3:2, 18-19) and countered with an appeal to stay resolute to the gospel and its glorious hope. Again examples are given, Paul and others who embody authenticity. Good preachers equip people for the challenge of heresy.

Philippians 4:1-9 brings things home what the appeal looks like: that the disputing groups reconcile, joy, hope, peace, prayer, correct thinking, and emulation of their founder Paul. Finally, Paul ends with thanksgiving for their wonderful generosity to him, they providing for them. Notice how the sermon is framed with positivity toward the recipients, love and hope at each end.

I could go into great detail on all of this, but I hope you get the point. I urge you to study the letters not only for their content but for their rhetorical patterns. They embody good preaching and encourage us to do the same.

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Mark is a senior lecturer in New Testament at Laidlaw College, Auckland NZ. He has been a Presbyterian and Baptist Pastor and is often found preaching and teaching in churches. He is married to Emma the minister of Glenfield Presbyterian, and has three wonderful daughters. His books include Congregational Evangelism in Philippians (Paternoster, 2008), and What’s God Up To On Planet Earth (Castle, 2010).

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