I suspect that “Big Idea” preaching will continue to be a popular approach to sermon preparation and delivery in the years to come. It shows no signs of abating any time soon. While I do wonder if preachers in the early church would have embraced such a Platonic and Aristotelian view of proclamation, I am convinced that they always had one overarching “Big Idea” in their sermons—the crucified and risen Christ. In their “mission” to the lost and the found the “Big Idea” always remained the truth of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:3-4). Let me offer a few examples from the New Testament that bear this truth out and then articulate the implications of 1st century “Big Idea” preaching for 21st century preachers.
The Book of Acts provides a unique window into the variegated preaching of the early church. From Peter’s sermon at Pentecost to Paul’s speech in Athens, the apostles found themselves in various preaching venues addressing various kinds of listeners for a number of different reasons. These fluctuating circumstances required Peter, Paul, and others, to adapt their preaching style and content. For example, in Acts 13 Paul preaches to Israelites and God-fearers well-acquainted with Israel’s history and sacred text. For that reason, Paul sounds like an Old Testament prophet grounding his preaching points in the words of prophets like Habakkuk, “Behold, you scoffers, and marvel, and perish, for I am accomplishing a work in your days, a work which you will never believe, though someone should describe it to you” (Acts 13:41). Contrastively, in his “sermon” at Athens, Paul demonstrates that there is a similarity between his view of humanity and that of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers by quoting the Greek poet Aratus (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, despite the change in Paul’s preaching style and content, his overarching “Big Idea” remained the same—the crucified and risen Christ (see Acts 13:26-41; 17:30-31). In his exposition of Habakkuk or Aratus, the heart of Paul’s message remained unashamedly the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The overarching “Big Idea” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in 1st century preaching applied not only to proclamation to the lost but also to the saved. In preaching aimed at 1st century believers the preacher’s overarching big idea remained the crucified and risen Christ. If the New Testament letters are any indication of the sermons that filled the air of 1st century house churches, Jesus’ death and resurrection occupied the “Big Idea” space from sermon to sermon. Hebrews serves as a good example of “Big Idea” 1st century preaching grounded in the gospel. In fact, many NT scholars have come to the consensus that Hebrews is more of a 1st century homily than a letter. Clearly, the author moves back and forth from exposition to exhortation in true sermonic fashion. His exhortation is constantly grounded in his exposition of Jesus’ superiority over angels, Moses, and the entire priestly system of Israel. Additionally, even in NT texts dealing with the more routine things of life such as marriage, parenting, work, and the like, the overarching “Big Idea” is Jesus Christ crucified and risen (see, e.g., Eph 5:22-6:9).
I have barely scratched the surfaced of 1st century “Big Idea” preaching. Yet, these few examples are indicative of a larger trend in 1st century preaching, namely holding up the crucified and risen Christ as the overarching “Big Idea” of every sermon, speech, and piece of ecclesiastical communication. I think the implications of this reality for 21st century preaching are quite obvious. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity let me briefly state four:
- Every sermon, whether addressed to the non-believing, believing, or both, should have as its “Biggest” idea the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- A sermon devoid of an ultimate focus on the crucified and risen Christ is not a sermon in the NT sense.
- The “big idea” of a sermon must always be filtered through and connected to the “bigger” idea of the crucified and risen Jesus.
- The “big idea” that overshadows the gospel Sunday after Sunday is a big mistake.