What about Topical Lessons?

by Doy Moyer

A good topical lesson is not a rejection of exegetical lessons. Nor is it a rejection of the primacy of context. This is not a defense of cherry-picking pet passages, taking them out of context, or ignoring other passages that make our understanding fuller and more complete.

Rather, this is an encouragement to understand comprehensive and overarching themes and concepts in Scripture. As such, the topical lesson will see the context, both broad and narrow, and will show how the issue at hand interweaves and connects throughout Scripture. A good topical lesson starts with good exegesis of particulars, then expands to the whole in order to understand its greater significance. The preparation underlying such a lesson should be extensive.

This is in line with the way that Christ and the apostles preached. For example, when Christ discussed the Law and showed its greater fulfillment in Himself with the implications of His kingdom (Matthew 5-7), He didn't just pick one passage only and exegete it. He showed a more overarching fulfillment and application. When Paul discussed the problem of sin (Romans 3), he referenced a number of passages that demonstrated the greater point of why we are in need of God's grace. Stephen's message in Acts 7 was a retelling of selected points in the history of his people.

We must be careful not to make rules that Scripture does not make about preaching. If one prefers to stay in one passage at a time, that's fine. But it's not a rule, and we can't just make our own rules up based on preferences. Instead, we should seek to understand Scripture in both its parts and its whole, faithfully teaching what God intended. That way, when we teach from one passage, we will do so faithfully; when we teach from multiple passages, we will do so faithfully.

How a preacher goes about doing all of this is to be determined as needed. For example, he may decide to preach through the books of the Bible, and thereby cover all the topics covered by Scripture. Even then he will likely pull from other passages as he does this to show the greater biblical context.

Yet here is something we need to stress: any solid preaching is going to be hard work, and topical lessons, properly done, are, in my mind, the most difficult of all. The preparation is greater because we are pulling from more passages and need to make sure we are handling each one accurately. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a good topical lesson is prepared by just going to a concordance and listing all the uses of a word. For every passage used, that passage ought to be studied well first in its own context.

Every preacher is unique, and I am fully on board with allowing each preacher to be himself. As long as he is faithful to the text and seeking to be an example, we have no right to try to stuff preachers into self-made molds that we like. Let them preach according to their own personalities. After all, Peter and Paul were certainly not identical.

I have been far from perfect in these matters. Looking back at myself as a younger preacher, I know now that I had so much to learn, both about Scripture and about communicating. Even now, I often feel inadequate to the task, and I still have much to learn. I pray that my failures have served a greater purpose of helping me learn more what it means to be a faithful proclaimer of the gospel.

Paul's admonition to Timothy is always in order: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (II Timothy 4:1-2).