by Stafford North
An excellent sermon can be developed by studying the life of a Bible character. Such a sermon gives the opportunity for people to learn more about the Bible while at the same time recognizing the practical ways Bible characters dealt with problems and circumstances similar to ours.
Almost any Bible character can serve as a focus for a biographical sermon. You might want to preach on Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Samson, Hannah, Eli, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, Jonah, Esther, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Peter, Paul, Mary, Timothy, John, and many others. The list is almost endless. Even fairly minor characters like Barnabas, Onesiphorus, or Lazarus can yield good lessons.
Of course, the choice of the person on which to preach depends on what purpose you have for the lesson. If you want to emphasize the importance of being faithful when most others are falling to sin, choose Noah. If you want to deal with the consequences of secret sin, choose David. If you want to demonstrate a life of service, choose Barnabas. If you want to inspire people to meet a challenge, choose Esther. If you want to demonstrate the hope for faithful Christians, choose Paul.
There are various ways to develop a biographical sermon, but let me mention two frequently used ones. Then we’ll also mention two ways to approach each of these two plans. The first plan for a biographical approach is to select three or four qualities in the person’s life on which you want to focus and tell of an occasion from his/her life which illustrates each quality. After you tell the incident, then show what quality we learn from the person’s life and describe situations in our lives today when we need to demonstrate that same quality. Thus, if your character has shown courage, tell us of situations in which we need to show similar courage, and if your character has been evangelistic, then tell when we have similar opportunities.
A second plan for a biographical lesson is to select two or three or four incidents in a person’s life that illustrate one particular quality you want to emphasize. You can tell of those occasions in the person’s life and then show how they all point to the same quality. Abraham was a man of faith as shown in his willingness to leave his home, his sharing property with Lot, and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Tell these stories from Abraham, show how they demonstrate faith in God, and then tell of occasions today when we need to show demonstrate the same type of faith.
There are two different ways of approaching these two types of biographical lessons: deductive and inductive. In the deductive approach, you tell people at the beginning of the lesson or the segment what application you are going to draw, then tell the story, then make the application of the quality announced. The inductive approach, on the other hand, would lead you to tell people before you start the story that we can learn important lessons from the character and that you want them to discover the application as you tell the story. This is a way of keeping their attention. Then, after telling the incident or life-story, pause for a moment to ask “What do you think we should learn from this incident.” Then you disclose the quality you have chosen from that event and make applications for the audience.
Let me give two further suggestions about biographical preaching. First, as you relate the incidents from a person’s life, do good storytelling. That is, include good details, build in some suspense, draw the story to a climax. You can even include some information taken from history, archaeology, and the culture of the times as long as you make clear where you got it. You don’t, of course, invent details and imply they came from scripture.
A second suggestion is that when you make the applications, be sure to make them specific. Often the application is so vague that those in the audience do not make much of a connection with their lives. So if you are telling the story of Noah and are showing how he and his family were the only ones in the whole world doing God’s will, make the point that we also have to stand against peer pressure. Then go on to be more specific by saying—So if you are the only one in the band at school that does not take drugs, stand firmly against the pressure from others. If you are the only one at work who does not use foul language, let the others be drawn to your example instead of your falling to their level. If you are the only one in your class at school that does not wear immodest clothing and the others are making fun of you about it, firmly but kindly make your stand. If you are in the meeting at work discussing a policy decision and the others want to do something unethical, you be the one to stand up for what is right. If you can tell of specific cases of those who have done these things, so much the better.
To illustrate these points, let’s build a biographical sermon on Barnabas. (1) Barnabas was generous. He sold a field and gave the money to the church to care for the poor (Acts 4:36). His example instructs us to care for those around us who have special needs—the poor, the lonely, those without good families, the sick, those who need the gospel. (2) Barnabas was caring. When no one else would stand up to help Paul connect with the church in Jerusalem, Barnabas did (Acts 9:26-29). Paul needed a well-known and well-respected member of the church to vouch for the fact that he had made a change in his life. Barnabas was that one who knew the facts and spoke up in Paul’s defense. Without this, Paul might never have become a powerful missionary as he did or the author of so much of the New Testament. Many around us need someone to care—a person who is ill, is in jail, needs a job. Find those who need help and help them. (3) Barnabas was evangelistic. He was ready to go with Paul on his first missionary tour and to engage in that important work in spreading the gospel even though they faced many difficulties and even death. Following the example of Barnabas, we need to be willing to reach out to our neighbors and friends to be sure they know the gospel story so they have a chance to respond to it. (4) Barnabas was encouraging. Paul did not want to take John Mark on another missionary tour because he had come home early from the first one. Barnabas, however, saw good possibilities in him and wanted to encourage Mark so he would continue to be active in the work of the Lord. When they couldn’t agree, Paul took Silas to revisit churches in one direction while Barnabas took Mark went in another direction. We, likewise, should always have our eyes open to those who need to be encouraged event to the point of taking them along with us in what we do. One of the best ways to encourage is to bring people along side of you as you do the work of the Lord. A young many you know may need encouragement to preach, a young woman may have lost her job, an older man may have learned he has a serious illness, a young woman may just have been baptized. These need to be encouraged
We can approach this biographical sermon deductively as in the paragraph above, announcing the characteristic and then showing how Barnabas demonstrates that quality. To approach the topic inductively, on the other hand, you would bring up the case first and while you develop that part of the story, you would ask the audience to discover the qualify Barnabas had that we should copy. Again, as you preach this sermon, be sure to give very specific applications to our situations of those qualities you find in Barnabas. This will make the sermon practical, interesting, moving, and memorable.
A biographical sermon can make an excellent sermon because it will be built around telling stories which create interest, and it can provide strong practical applications to help people know exactly the kind of life you are calling on them to lead.