Four questions for choosing a passage to preach

How do preachers choose the most suitable passage to preach on? Here are my four criteria.


I spent two hours this morning choosing the passage I’m preaching on this Sunday.

That isn’t normally a question that comes my way because our style is to preach our way through a book of the bible. We give ourselves some slack in that, if we find that we’ve bitten off more than we can chew and need a shorter message than the one we set, but by and large we simply pick up where we left off the previous week.

But this season we are working through the Lord’s Prayer, and each topic needs another passage to open it out.  This week, for instance, I’m preaching on ‘Lead us not into temptation’, and that needs a much fuller expansion: what is temptation, why is it important, how does God help us, what steps do I need to take, what do I need to do when I’m tempted – those kind of things.  So I’ve had a list of relevant passages (Romans 7, Galatians 5, Ephesians 2, Colossians 3, 1 John 2 etc.) and I’ve been choosing the one that works best as a stand alone passage.

Here are four criteria I’ve developed for choosing one-off passages:

1. It must be directly on the topic.  I can’t start explaining or defending a passage which is only indirectly relevant.  For instance, David’s adultery with Bathsheba is a good example of a believer being tempted, but it is not primarily there to explain how his temptation functioned, much less how David should have fought it. It is a terrific story, and a devastating example of how he covered over his sin (nearly), but that is a side show to the main issue I need to address

2. It must be the maximum coverage of the topic.  It must dwell at length, richly, with the subject at hand.  I’d rather spend my time choosing one passage carefully than have a paper-chase sermon around four.  All those passages above meet that criterion.

3. It must be the least contextually determined material.  Every passage has a context, but some are easier to explain than others.  Since I have little time to do background work in the sermon, and since talking about context without showing it from the passage always a but like sleight of hand, I want a passage where people can read it through and more or less get what it’s saying first time.

Again, those passages hit that button because earlier I’d weeded out several that didn’t.

4. It must contain the application.  This was the clincher.  All those passages beg to be applied, and they are all applied.  But most of them are applied elsewhere in their context.  On this occasion I’m looking for  a ‘how to’ passage, rather than an ‘I must’ passage, so that I can equip people to fight temptation.  So on this occasion simply describing the roots of sin as the world, the flesh and the devil isn’t quite enough; telling people the difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t either. Remember, as a one-off I want the application within the passage, rather than two paragraphs later.

So Colossians it is.

How do you decide?  What have I missed?  Pile in?


On why I believe application is so crucial, see my book Cutting to the Heart.

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4 comments on “Four questions for choosing a passage to preach”

  1. Thanks Chris. Helpful criteria when there aren’t that many models for more thematic teaching. I fear – looking back – I fell foul of the paperchase test. From memory – perhaps out of left field – we were mainly in Matthew 4.
    I enjoyed the series opener. I’ll look forward to being encouraged by “lead us not…” in conjunction with Col 3!

    1. Oh, a thousand times I’ve failed! and sometimes we need the paper chase, like when we are demonstrating biblical theology or assembling a doctrine out of component parts. But it’s worth asking, ‘Is there one passage which does it all?’

  2. Thanks for this, it’s very helpful. It is a good exercise for preachers to spend time prayerfully choosing a passage once in a while. Do you think it is also appropriate sometimes to preach a text simply because it struck you in a particular way, and not necessarily as part of a series or a specific theme? Thanks.

    1. It could be, but it should probably be something that has struck us for the benefit of the church, not something that has just hit home for us individually.

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