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.
Perhaps the single most disgusting cliché in Christianity today is “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I have heard it on the lips of well-meaning pastors and weeping widows. I am sure that, somewhere along the way, I even used it at time or two (God forgive me). The origin of this pernicious lie is undoubtedly the misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13 which reads, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond that which you are able, but he will make with the temptation a way of escape in order for you to be able to endure.”
Let’s briefly consider what Paul does and does not say in this verse. Paul does say that the Corinthians are being tempted in a way similar to what Israel faced in the wilderness (i.e., fornication, idolatry, murmuring, see 1 Cor 10:1-12). Paul does say that God will not allow the Corinthians to be tempted with sin beyond what they are able to bear. Paul does say that God provides a way to escape temptation. On the other hand, Paul does not say that God does not give judgment, suffering, or pain beyond what a person can bear. Paul does not say that God is good all the time (i.e., good in the sense of always making life pleasant for us down here). To the contrary, both Paul and the entire biblical canon bear witness to the fact that God always gives us more than we can handle.