Once a preaching text is selected, the next step is to contextualize it within its original historical setting and within the broader canon. Every biblical passage was written in time and space by real people for real reasons. We cannot treat the Bible as if it was written in our part of the world during our time. When we do this, then we will more often than not miss the point of the text. Therefore, it is incumbent on the preacher to study so that he is able to understand the world from which the text was put together. We will not delve more into this here, except to recommend every preacher work very diligently to understand every biblical text in its proper historical context.
Canonical contextualization is equally important as historical contextualization for the Christian sermon. The canonical context of any text begins with the most immediately surrounding texts and moves outward. Therefore, a preaching text must first be understood in context of its immediate chapter, then its immediate rhetorical unit, then its immediate book, then its immediate sub-section of the canon, then its Testament, and finally the Bible as a whole. Furthermore, a preaching text must be first understood according to the meaning derived by the originally intended audience and then, in the case of Old Testament texts, understood from a post-Incarnation point of view.
It is necessary for preachers of God’s Word to have a working knowledge of the full breadth of Scripture. Of course we will be forever growing in our understanding but before we begin preaching it is fundamental that we know the big picture. Unless the preacher knows the Bible from front to back in some degree of familiarity, putting any given preaching text into context will be all but impossible.
Goldsworthy (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 29) makes a critical statement when he writes:
For the preacher, salvation history is an important aspect of the context of any biblical text. It highlights the progressive nature of revelation and the fact that texts do not all bear the same relationship to the gospel and to the Christian church today.
Salvation History stretches from Creation to New Creation, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. If we accept that God has not spoken a single Word superfluously, then we must agree that every link from beginning to end is purposeful, necessary, and united. Put another way, we will not be able to properly understand one part without some understanding of all the other parts. Goldsworthy has rightly stated that not all texts bear the same relationship with the Gospel and the Church today. However, all texts bear some relationship with the Gospel and the Church today, and without question that relationship is crucially important to the building up of the Church. The task of the preacher is to identify that relationship and express it faithfully to the congregation. Of course, identifying the integral relationship will be impossible without appealing to Christ as the interpretative key.
Let us examine Exodus 12:1-28 as an example. This preaching text outlines the LORD’s instructions concerning Passover. Proper contextualization of this preaching text will first recognize that these instructions are given to Israel after the LORD threatened the tenth and final plague but before midnight, when the LORD fulfilled His threat, striking down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. Next, it should be observed that the instructions for the Passover are given at the climax of God’s wrath against Egypt; that is, after nine plagues had come and on the eve of the tenth. Furthermore, the tenth plague breaks Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to free the slaves and leads directly to the exodus of Israel from Egypt. The Passover, therefore, occupies a climactic position within the sacred text that recounts God’s deliverance of His people. From the beginning of Exodus until the preaching text, Israel had been in bondage to Pharaoh. From the preaching text forward, Israel is a delivered people, first by decree and then by experience. Exodus 12:1-28, therefore, forms a fulcrum for the narrative portion of Exodus. This text is a watershed text for the broader Torah as well. The Passover becomes a defining ritual in the national self-awareness of Israel as a distinct people who are redeemed and set apart by the grace of God.
The Passover also captures essential symbolism for a right understanding of the Person and mission of the Messiah, who would come as a Paschal Lamb and by whose blood the wrath of God would be propitiated. A full biblical understanding of the Passover, therefore, enlightens our understanding of and appreciation for the atonement by Christ.