A biographical sermon is a sermon that explains and applies biblical truth to life today on the basis of texts that cluster around a Bible personality.
While this definition doesn't eliminate the people in our Lord's parables or those described in the book of Proverbs, our emphasis in this book will be on flesh-and-blood characters with real histories, even if the inspired writers left them anonymous. The gifted Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte preached messages about the characters in our Lord's parables, the "angels" of the seven churches in Asia Minor, and even the personalities in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. But Whyte had a uniquely sanctified imagination that most of us admire but probably cannot imitate.
Let's emphasize real messages about real people-what they were like, what they experienced, how they changed (for better or for worse), how they handled the circumstances of life, how they related to other people, and, most of all, how they related to God. We want to know what they contributed to the salvation story that is the overriding theme of Scripture. Most of all, we want to know what they can teach us today.
One of the most successful preachers of Bible biography was Clarence Edward Macartney, whose many sermon books you should add to your library. He wrote in the foreword to The Wisest Fool, and Other Men of the Bible, "I discovered early in my ministry that people like biography; and nowhere is there such biography, so stirring, so moving, so uplifting, so tragic, as that to be found in the Bible."1 He wrote those words in 1949. By that time, he had preached 167 biographical sermons-and there were many more to follow! In Macartney's delightful autobiography The Making of a Minister, he tells how he "discovered" Bible biography while serving as a summer intern during his student days. "I had only a few books with me . . . and had it not been for the Old Testament characters, I would have gone into pulpit bankruptcy. . . . That experience taught me the appeal of biographical preaching, and thus opened for me a rich pulpit vein that I am still working."2
The Bible is basically a dramatic history book, and, as A. T. Pierson said, "History is His story." Scripture records the great salvation narrative, which employs a cast of thousands of characters who reveal human nature at its best and its worst. It shows how God worked in and through these individuals to reveal his mercy and love. The main message of the Bible is the grace of God as seen in Jesus Christ, the good news that Jesus can change people and make them new creatures.3
We preach Bible biography because we preach the Bible and cannot avoid the characters who inhabit its pages. People today are intensely interested in other people, especially those they admire and perhaps envy. Consider the success of the Biography Channel, Biography magazine, People magazine, and celebrity interviews. Add to these the popularity of biographies and autobiographies sold in bookstores. "The only value of a life is its content-for others," wrote Dag Hammarskj÷ld in his spiritual autobiography Markings.4 Each life has content, and the lives of Bible personalities are especially rich. Listen to an interview with the average showbiz celebrity and you quickly discover there isn't much content; then listen to an interview with a real leader, scholar, saint, or hero, and you move into the depths of character and relationships.
The life content of the people found in the Bible will constantly challenge you, not only as a Christian but also as a servant of the Lord. After completing his monumental biography of Robert E. Lee, Douglas Freeman said, "I have been fully repaid by being privileged to live . . . for more than a decade in the company of a great gentleman." What moral and spiritual strength we preachers ought to receive as we walk with Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul!
If it is done correctly, biographical preaching is especially effective because it combines story, practical psychology, and biblical theology, all wrapped up in the lives of real people. Biographical sermons rescue congregations from having to wrestle with abstract ideas and dull historical facts from the pulpit that seem to have no connection with real life. When you preach Bible biography, you show what God can do with ordinary people in real-life situations, and this tells your congregation what God can do for them today. Our message is not about what God did for David centuries ago but what God is doing for his people today. Eugene Peterson reminds us that "we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And that other is God."5
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye said: "The Bible to me is not a structure of doctrine, not a structure of propositions, but a collection of stories making up one single story, and that's the interrelationship of God and man."6 In preaching biographical messages, wise preachers can expound Bible doctrine and teach propositional truth without the listener realizing they are doing it. In one dramatic biblical episode after another, we can confront our listeners with what Scripture describes as "the world," that diabolical system that is opposed to God and blinds people to the truth. From Lot and Abraham in Genesis to the fall of godless Babylon in Revelation, the Bible exposes the falseness and futility of the illusion that is the world system. The unbeliever says that something is as sure as the world, but John says that the world is passing away (1 John 2:17)! By teaching about Bible personalities, we can expose sin, magnify God's grace, and deal with neglected themes that today's congregations need to hear.
Bible culture is vastly different from modern culture, but the Bible world is the same world that tempts Christians today. Good biographical preaching will reach people right where they are as they wrestle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Decades ago seminary professors called this "life-situation preaching," but biographical preaching does more than tell people how to face and solve problem situations in life. It goes much deeper and deals with motives, illusions, and evasions, the lies that impel people to make the unwise decisions that cause their lives to fall apart. Dysfunctional families existed in the pages of the Bible long before the term itself became popular in the literature of modern psychology.
One word of caution: please don't announce that biographical preaching makes the Bible "come alive." The Bible is alive whether we preach it or not (Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23), and poorly prepared biographical sermons can be as dead as any other kind of bad preaching. Good biographical sermons can convince our listeners that the living Word of God meets them where they are and, if believed and obeyed, helps to get them where God wants them to be. Remember, effective biographical sermons are about present reality, not ancient history. They focus on what God wants to do for his people today and not what he did for Israel centuries ago.
Since we represent a holy God and preach from a holy book, and since the consequences involve life and death, all preaching is serious. But preaching Bible biography is especially so and, to quote the traditional marriage ceremony, "must not be entered into lightly or carelessly, but soberly and in the fear of God." The analogy is an instructive one, for in preparing a biographical sermon, we "marry" our minds and hearts to what we know about the minds and hearts of Bible personalities, and we "live with them" as we learn from them. The people we preach about may be strangers to the congregation, but they had better not be strangers to us. If our preparation is careless and hurried, we may end up committing one of two sins: bearing false witness against one of the Lord's servants by teaching error, or teaching truth in a manner that makes us act superior to the person about whom we're preaching.
I once heard a high-profile preacher say to a large congregation, "You'll recognize Peter when you get to heaven. He's the fellow with the foot-shaped mouth." The people around me laughed, but my heart was heavy. There isn't a preacher alive who is worthy to carry Peter's sandals let alone ridicule him in public. Let's try to practice the Golden Rule as we preach. Let's speak about Bible personalities the way we would want them to speak about us, which means, let's be loving and let's be fair. The people we preach about are real people, created in the image of God. We're dealing with flesh and blood, not paper and ink.
Biographical preaching is serious because we're dealing with that elusive thing called character. We don't fully understand our own hearts let alone the hearts of people who walked this earth millenniums ago. We boastfully say, "Well, if I know my own heart"-but we don't know our own hearts! After all, Jeremiah 17:9 is still in the Bible: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Phillips Brooks said that the purpose of life is the shaping of character by truth, a process that is not easy. "The conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment," wrote Alan Redpath, "the manufacture of a saint is the task of a lifetime."1 The understanding of a human being may also be the task of a lifetime. "We are always sowing our future; we are always reaping our past," wrote W. R. Inge, the "gloomy dean" of St. Paul's Cathedral, and only God knows the condition of the soil and the promise of the harvest.2
When it comes to human nature, the world's thinkers and leaders are either very optimistic or very pessimistic. The year I was born, people were singing, "So always look for the silver lining / And try to find the sunny side of life"; but that same year the Crash occurred and brought the near economic ruin of the nation. The esteemed historian Barbara Tuchman told Bill Moyers in a television interview, "Revolutions produce other men, not new men. Halfway between truth and endless error, the mold of the species is permanent. That is earth's burden."3 But Christians are realists. While they have little or no faith in human nature alone, they do believe that God can implant new life in people's hearts and empower them to help change the lives of others. The Bible tells stories of men and women who were utterly transformed by the grace of God, and these stories need to be told again and again. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Saul of Tarsus became Paul the apostle, and Simon became Peter. Christian realists are pessimistic about human nature but optimistic about the power and grace of the Lord.
God's goal for his people is that they become more and more like Jesus Christ, what Paul called "conformed to the likeness of his Son" (Rom. 8:29). "For we are God's workmanship" (Eph. 2:10), which suggests that God has to work in us before he can work through us. Spirit-empowered preaching is one of his most important tools. Preach about how God worked in frightened Gideon and made him a mighty man of valor and you will encourage many believers who are closet cowards. It's serious work to build character and seek to make people more like Jesus, but it's also joyful work that lasts for eternity. In short, biographical preaching is worth the effort expended in the study, the prayer closet, and the pulpit.