L. Scott Kellum, Preaching the Farewell Discourse

Kellum, L. Scott. Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-Through of John 13:31-17:26. Nashville: B&H, 2014. 350 pp. Pb; $29.99.   Link to B&H Academic.

Rather than a commentary on John 13:31-17:26, this book is a primer for expository preaching. Kellum laments the “unmistakable and disturbing gap between our hermeneutics and is preaching” (p. 5). While there are excellent books on either homiletics or hermeneutics, rarely does a handbook intended for students include both a hermeneutical method and homiletical practice.

Kellum, Preaching John

Many preachers assume that they are doing exposition because they are preaching through a book of the Bible. Kellum suggests this is a mistake since it is entirely possible to “dismember the application of the passage” through poor exegesis. Even if someone preaches through a whole book of the Bible, they may not be doing “expositional preaching.” I have heard many sermons based on a passage of Scripture having little to do with what the text was actually saying. Usually, the sermon was topical, with only a slight nod to the passage.

Kellum’s goal in this book is to move from text to sermon. In order to do this, he traces a basic hermeneutical strategy in his introductory chapter. Beginning with the reading of the text, he describes how to identify the genre and shows how proper identification of genre assists in the exposition of a text. He encourages pastors and preachers to make their own “pragmatic translation of the text,” including observation of textual variants. While a pastor should not discuss textual variants from the pulpit, a good preacher will inform his congregation of these matters in another teaching environment. Kellum only briefly discusses word studies, making the usual sorts of warnings about avoiding cognates, anachronisms, and using the whole range of a word. He offers an example of a proper Greek word study used to illustrate the meaning of the text (p. 20).

With respect to historical context, Kellum suggests the expositor investigate the original writer’s perspective and the writer’s “mindset.” Backgrounds can be as dangerous as word studies. For example, it is a mistake to find Gnostic ideas in Colossians. He, therefore, encourages the expositor to investigate the cultural environment and relevant political civil, and religious institutions primarily to illuminate the text. Kellum briefly describes setting a particular text into a canonical context focusing on where the particular story fits into the overall plot of the Bible, which he calls covenant dimensions.

To prepare to proclaim a passage from the pulpit, he suggests identifying the “main idea of the text” (MIT). Once a simple statement of the main idea is clear, this MIT is converted to the “main idea of the message” (MIM). After identifying the main idea of the text and the main idea of the message, the expositor should begin to find illustrations and applications for the text. I suspect many preachers find a good illustration first, then look for a good passage to preach from. Concerning illustrations, Kellum first suggests other biblical texts. He does encourage personal anecdotes, observations, news reports, biographies, historical allusions and finally, statistics. He warns about the overuse of statistics as illustrations since these are often skewed and intended to create some sort of fear in the hearer’s mind.

Chapter 2 of this book is a highly detailed approach to analyzing the literary structure and flow of the passage. He begins at the book level by examining the whole outline of the book of John. Once the preacher has determined a passage to preach on (in this case, the Farewell Discourse), Kellum describes how to determine the boundaries of the passage using conjunctions, indicators of time and space, summary statements, rhetorical questions, etc. He describes this as a “point of departure.” After determining the boundaries, he offers a highly detailed linguistic flow chart to track the movements of the passage. This looks like discourse analysis, similar to Steve Runge and the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series.  While Kellum says this method helps track the flow of the text, I find it extremely difficult to follow and may not yield the same level of results for me as it does for Kellum.

After laying this hermeneutical and homiletical background, Kellum offers a chapter overviewing the farewell discourse. Chapters 4 through 7 of the book constitute examples of his method applied to particular sections of the Farewell Discourse. First, he examines John 14, “commands that comfort,” then John 15-16:4c, “Commands that unite.”  In his third unit, Kellum describes the “advantages of Jesus’s departure” (John 16:4-33) and Jesus’ final prayer (John 17).

Each chapter offers an example of “relational structure” for the passage, demonstrating the method Kellum developed in his second chapter. Following this chart, he provides a brief analysis of the text to indicate the limits of the section. He then steps through the text, making brief interpretive comments. This is not a full commentary but is intended to be an example of how an expositional sermon might deal with some of the details of the text. Finally, Kellum outlines each unit in a “sermon sketch.” Here is the “main idea of the text” and “the main idea of the message.” A brief introduction and a sermon outline. He occasionally includes illustrations (although there are more in the appendix to the book) and a conclusion to the sermon. As Kellum makes clear in the introduction, these are examples of how an expositional sermon might develop a text and should not be confused with a critical commentary. He is not claiming these sermons are the only way to approach the text but are the results of his own prayerful study of the text following the method outlined in the book’s first two chapters.

Kellum concludes his book with two appendices. First, he lists the tools an expositor needs to prepare for the study of any text. Kellum offers his opinion on English Bibles and other language tools, Bible encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, introductions, chart books, and commentaries. He briefly comments on both Systematic and Biblical theologies and other communicator tools. For example, most public speakers want to have access to a good dictionary to use words properly. However, he warns there is nothing more irritating than someone saying, “Webster defines righteousness as…” I agree wholeheartedly: a Greek lexicon for biblical words, not an English Dictionary (p. 233). He concludes the section by offering some comments on using the Internet and some warnings for using Wikipedia. Most of these are relatively common sense. I found it interesting he included a valuable resource such as Google Books since it contains many older commentaries which may be used freely. As the author warns, many of these commentaries are quite old, limiting their value to the expositor.

He briefly comments on choosing a Bible program such as Logos, BibleWorks or Accordance. He warns that several mistakes and expositors can make when using Bible software. First, do not think Bible software is perfect. They all rely on human data entry, and mistakes can be made. Second, language tools are useless unless you know the basics of grammar. Knowing a verb is in the aorist tense is of no help whatsoever if you don’t know what the aorist tense is. “Being unfamiliar with the program’s terminology might result in bizarre heresies.”  He also warns about being satisfied with a single search. Computer programs can only search what you tell them to search, so some skill is needed to know how to use a program.

The second appendix is “a sermon series through the farewell discourse.” This appendix is almost 100 pages in includes sermon outlines, the main idea of a text, the main idea of the message, introductions, conclusions, and suggested illustrations useful for preaching through this section. Kellum has written out the introductions and conclusions fully, but hopefully, no one will read these verbatim as part of their own sermons. They intended as a model for how to do expositional preaching. I found this appendix strange since it often reproduces the text verbatim from the book’s main chapters. For example, the outline on page 156 is identical to the outline on page 283; the only differences I can see are the illustrations. Perhaps there is a better way to present this material that does not increase the size and cost of the book.

Kellum concludes with a select bibliography helpful in studying the book of John and several hermeneutical texts. Like his appendix on basic tools, this section is a kind of ‘buyer’s guide” for seminary students. This “expository walk-through” will be helpful in a homiletics class, but any pastor or teacher who wants to polish their expositional skills will profit from reading this book.


NB: Thanks to B&H for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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