Homileticians speak generally of three types of sermons--the topical, the textual, and the expository. If a minister prayerfully selects a subject for a topical sermon, guidelines from homiletics scholars require support for every main point by citing a specific passage of Scripture. In the topical form, one may select both main and sub-points from anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, the preacher may draw part of the message from the Old Testament and the rest from the New Testament. In doing so, the minister upholds the unity of the Book. While some tend to frown on topical preaching, a minister can share some material only in that type of sermon. Donald Hamilton observes, "While topical preaching is ignored or disdained by many theological conservatives, it should be remembered that many doctrinal and ethical subjects can be handled in this way. Some, indeed, must be!" Perhaps the best way to make the use of topical sermons clear is to demonstrate the process of building such a sermon. In this article I attempt to do that with a subject that one can address only topically.
Concerning the historical roots of the topical sermon, Lloyd Perry reports, "The topical sermon originated as a method of preaching about A. D. 1200. . . . It has been regarded through the years as the most oratorical species of pulpit address. Blackwood said that the greatest preachers of all time have been topical preachers. It may well be true that in the history of preaching, topical sermons have outnumbered all the rest."
In describing the topical sermon, Perry writes, "In this type of sermon the theme is drawn from the text, but it is discussed independently. It embraces a single leading idea which can be expressed in a verse, proposition, or sentence." The topical approach covers at least a paragraph while the textual generally considers only two or three verses.
In the case of the sermon outline below, the subject was assigned to me. It was simply "Israel." The theme was also included in the assignment: "The place of Israel in the plan of God." I was to address an evening meeting in the chapel of the college where I taught. Those planning the lecture assigned another professor the task of speaking about the place of Arabs in the plan of God. To follow my instructions required that I use the topical pattern for the message. This meant that both my main points and my sub-points could come from anywhere in Scripture.
In the sermon, I proposed: "For the following reasons, we must conclude that God has a special relationship with Israel as a people, but not to the exclusion of the Arabs or any other ethnic group." This led to the listing of the following main points in specifying those reasons:
II. God made a covenant with an Old Testament king.
III. God has dealt and will continue to deal with Israel according to the covenants with Abraham and David.
Developing the conclusion is generally the next to last step in preparing a sermon. Characteristically, the opening words are, "Therefore we should . . . ," followed by a restatement of the proposition. After that, the speaker offers a recapitulation of at least the main points of the sermon. Then he or she again suggests some ways for applying the truths of the message. This leads logically to the invitation where the preacher gives opportunity for persons in the audience to respond to the message. Hershael York and Bert Decker say that the purpose of a conclusion is to summarize the main subject, focus on long-range application, and ask for immediate response. With a strong emphasis on the application part of the conclusion, they stress the necessity of "setting the hook" just like a good fisherman who wishes to bring in the fish on the end of the line. They declare, "A good conclusion will require at least five minutes, so plan for it."
One final rule applies to conclusions. The speaker should avoid the temptation to include some material that didn't seem to fit into the discussion of any of the main points. Conclusions are not meant to continue teaching by presenting yet more new material. Anything worthwhile that has appeared to be unusable until now should be saved and become part of another sermon. After all, by now the congregation should be anxious for an opportunity to act upon the worthy counsel of the preacher.
Below, then, I offer you the complete outline of this sermon. It should serve to illustrate what a topical sermon looks like when it has been developed according to the suggestions of the homileticians.
The Place of Israel in the Plan of God
Intro. What we say here should not be taken as having political overtones.
2. That God chose Israel for a specific work in His plan for the ages, however, does not mean all the current political decisions and actions of the State of Israel are correct.
3. Further, to hold to the truths of God's Word concerning Israel does not rob us of our burden for the salvation of Arabs.
Prop. For the following reasons, we must conclude that God has a special relationship with Israel as a people, but not to the exclusion of the Arabs or any other ethnic group.
1. Consider the fact that, characteristically, Scripture narrows in focus with the passing of time.
a. In chapters 1-11 of Genesis, the focus is on the whole human race, from Adam to Abram.
b. Chapters 12-50 narrow the focus to one man, Abram, and his family.
2. Note the call to Abram (Gen. 12:1): "The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.'"
3. Observe the promises (vv. 2-3a): "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great . . . and I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse."
4. Study the purpose (vv. 2b-3b): "You will be a blessing . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
B. Second, God selected a people (the man's descendants), but even that involved a narrowing down process; Jehovah promised to give him a special son.
1. Since they thought God was slow in making good on His promise, Abram and Sarai arranged for descendants through the "fleshly" birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16).
2. Later Jehovah made clear the promised son would be born to Abram and Sarai.
3. Even with that information, Abram requested that the blessings of his covenant would continue through Ishmael (Gen. 17:18-21); God's reply was, "No, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him" (Gen. 17:19).
4. The sacred record focuses no more on Ishmael after Genesis 25.
5. God selected Isaac, whose birth was a miracle rooted in the faith of the one whose name He changed to Abraham, "the father of a multitude."
6. In time, God chose Jacob instead of Esau, from whom the Bible turns after Genesis 36.
7. Jacob's descendants remained the focus of attention as the ones through whom the blessings of Abraham came.
a. Observe the fact, as Jehovah declared to them, "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession" (Deut. 7:6).
b. Be aware of the reason, as Jehovah explained: "The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Deut. 7:7-8).
c. The other descendants of Abraham came to constitute the Arabic peoples of the world today.
II. God made a covenant with an Old Testament king.
A. Consider its conditions (2 Sam. 7:8-17).
1. God would establish David's "house" (v. 11b) and his "kingdom" (v. 12), thus granting him a dynasty.
2. That dynasty would remain in perpetuity, "a kingdom forever" (v. 13).
3. The covenant had conditions attached; concerning any heir to David's throne, the Lord said, "I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men" (v. 14).
4. Still, it contained positive assurances; Jehovah declared, "But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever" (vv. 15-16).
B. David sensed, though, that a suspension of his dynasty lay ahead (2 Sam. 3:3-5).
1. He knew what kind of King must come to sustain it; God explained to him, "When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth" (vv. 3-4).
2. Though such a king, a son of David, had not arrived yet, He would come; David responded to God, "Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire?" (v. 5).
C. Ezekiel decreed that suspension (21:26-27).
1. He declared that the Sovereign Lord had said, "Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low" (v. 26).
2. The prophecy continued, "It will not be restored until he comes to whom it rightfully belongs; to him I will give it" (v. 27).
Someone has observed, "Since that time but one King of the Davidic family has been crowned at Jerusalem, and He was crowned with thorns."
D. God promised a renewal of the Davidic dynasty (Isa. 11:1-9).
1. He declared that, though the tree of the dynasty had been cut down, "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit" (v. 1).
2. One mightily anointed with the Spirit would again sit on the throne of David (v. 2).
3. His would be a righteous rule (vv. 3-5).
4. Enmity between man and animal as well as between animal and animal would cease (vv. 6-9).
5. These things did not happen at the first coming of Christ as the son of David.
a. But they will at His Second Coming; Isaiah declared, "In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea" (v. 11) (emphasis mine).
b. The angel promised Mary those things would come through her son; he declared, "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:31-33).
6. We rest our hopes as to the coming of the millennial age on passages such as this, as well as Isaiah chapter 11 and Rev. 20:4-6.
III. God has dealt and will continue to deal with Israel according to the covenants with Abraham and David.
A. He said judgment would come for their sins.
a. Moses spoke of dire consequences for their wickedness (Deut. 28:15-19, 64-67).
b. Jeremiah echoed those words of Moses (Jer. 24:9).
a. He wept because He knew judgment was coming on Israel (Luke19:41-44).
b. He presented graphic details concerning the approaching destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24)
1. He did so in the days of the Old Testament.
a. Judgment came when Israel fell to Assyria in 721 BC.
b. The same thing happened to Judah when she was defeated by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
2. The Lord also sent judgment on Israel in New Testament times, when the country was overrun by the Romans in AD 70.
C. Still, the Lord promised a restoration of Israel.
1. He said He would return them to their homeland following the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities during the Old Testament period.
a. As a spokesman for Jehovah, Jeremiah promised, "I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile. Jacob will again have peace and security, and no one will make him afraid" (Jer. 30:11).
b. Speaking for the Lord under the figure of a Shepherd, Ezekiel declared, "I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land" (Ezek. 34:12-13).
2. He promised to return them in a future second restoration of Israel (Isa. 11:11).
1. The Jewish people returned to their homeland under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
2. They have gone back a second time during the twentieth century by His sovereign plan.
National sovereignty never came again to Israel from the Old Testament period until May 14, 1948.
Concl. For the following reasons, we must conclude that God has a special relationship with Israel as a people.
2. He will make good on every aspect of all of His covenants with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.
3. None of this, however, is at the expense of any other people; the promises remain true, though not to the exclusion of the Arabs or any other ethnic group.
4. We are not being political in relating what Scripture clearly teaches about Israel.
5. Yet we dare not stand apart from what God does with Israel politically and otherwise in our times.
6. We must not stand on the side against Him!
7. Again, though, we must not allow these facts to dampen our fervor on behalf of the salvation of Arabic peoples.
8. In it all we greatly need God's help; no doubt, with the passing of time it will become harder and harder to hold to these truths.
To conclude, the topical sermon is a type that is indispensable for messages on certain subjects. According to the accepted rules of homiletics, the preacher must draw support for every main point in the message by citing a specific passage of Scripture. In the topical sermon, the minister has the freedom to choose main points and sub-points from anywhere in the Bible, not just from the main text of the sermon. Another distinctive of this type of sermon is that while the theme comes from the text, the minister discusses it independently, bringing in supporting material from other parts of the Bible where the topic is covered. Finally, as shown in the example topical sermon outlined above, the steps in composing a topical message, just as in composing a textual or expository one, consist of choosing a topic, selecting a theme, determining a proposition, preparing main points, and constructing a conclusion with opportunity for application of the message's focus by the congregation.
Hamilton, Donald L. Homiletical Handbook. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.
Perry, Lloyd M. Biblical Preaching for Today's World. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.
York, Hershael W., and Bert Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.