By Dr. Jim Cowman (guest blogger)
The lowly sermon title is the most commonly undervalued and neglected part of a sermon, despite its many useful functions. Like an individual’s name, it specifically identifies the work. It serves as a descriptive summary of the content. And it can entice the audience in a variety of ways to hear and remember. For maximum sermon impact, a concise and memorable title is as indispensable as a handle to luggage. Contemporary preaching would do well to integrate it creatively into each sermon for optimum effect.
The Form and Use of Titles in Biblical Literature
One has to admit at the outset of this line of inquiry, that in the few places where the Bible presents a sermon, there is no obvious sermon title. For example, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5-7), Paul’s “Speech on Mars Hill” (Acts 17), and Peter’s “Pentecost Sermon” (Acts 2) came with no original titles. Subsequently, common usage came to identify the speech only by where or when it was delivered so that these famous words could be easily referenced.
The books of the Bible, the next larger literary unit, were also given a minimalist title—something to identify it for referencing purposes. So the prophets, the Gospels, Peter’s and John’s epistles, James and Jude are named after the authors, while the epistles of Paul are named after their respective recipients. Fewer are the books that have a brief descriptive title: the books of Moses, Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, Acts, and Revelation. Again, a title is a name to identify, or minimally describe a document for easy referral. There are very few examples hinting at a more significant use of title for a document: The “Book of the Law” for Deuteronomy, found and restored to its rightful place of authority over Judah in the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22; 2 Chron. 34), and “The Book of the Covenant” for Exodus 20-23, to which the Israelites swore allegiance.
The most developed use of titles in the Bible is to be found in the naming and renaming of individuals. Name and title are both labels and designations by which a person or thing is known or called. Name is the simpler and more general term or appellation. Title is the more formal and honorary attribution. For our purposes, the two terms will be treated synonymously. For instance, consider four people in the Bible who had their name changed to refer to the changes that would take place in their character.
- According to Abram, “Father of One,” a new name, Abraham (“Father of Many,” Gen. 17:5), conferred upon him a descriptive characterization that was true to the promise of God and Abraham’s certain destiny.
- Likewise, Jacob became Israel (“He Struggles with God,” Gen. 32:28);
- Simon became Peter (“The Rock,” John 1:42);
- Joseph became Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement,” Acts 4:36).
The two most entitled Biblical persons are the antagonist, the Devil, with some 25 titles; and the protagonist, Christ, with over 50 titles.
- So Satan is… “The Evil one” (1 John 3:12),
- “The Tempter (Matt. 4),
- “The Prince of Demons” (Matt. 12:24),
- “The Great Dragon” (Rev. 12:9),
- “The Ancient Serpent” (Rev. 12:9),
- “The Roaring Lion” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Notice from this sampling that these are generally negative, alarming, and repulsive; that is, they add the function of warning, or driving the audience away from what it should fear him to be.
In Christ, titles rise to the highest level of complexity and function. Whichever title we call him, we are always doing more than affirming his identity and describing his person and work. For example, if we meaningfully call him “The Good Shepherd,” (John 10:11, 14), it is because “we all like sheep have gone astray,” (1 Pet. 2:25) and are in need of his protective care. But we are also attracted to being like him, as under-shepherds who “tend the flock of God” that is under our care (1 Pet. 5:2). If we describe him as “The Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), it is because our anxious hearts and troubled world need the calm that only Jesus offers (John 14:27; 16:33). But we who enjoy his peace are also drawn to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). In short, we call him what he is, what we believe him to be, what we trust him to be, what we need him to be to us; and we follow him in conformity to the likeness of his name. We can comprehend better now why blind Bartimaeus included the title, “Son of David” in his plea of faith, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)
The name for Christ that elevates titling to its highest pinnacle is found in Revelation 22:12: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” This is probably a form of synthetic parallelism in which each title variation is adding something to the basic title meaning:
- “Beginning and End” affirms his eternal priority and finality over all that is temporal;
- “Alpha and Omega” summarizes his authorship, keeping and disposing of all things:
- “First and Last” emphasizes his meritorious elevation (ascension) over all moral creatures by way of the terrible humiliation of the cross (Phil. 2:6-11).
It is to the “First and the Last” that we are most drawn: (in Christ’s Kingdom those will be first who, for Christ’s sake, assumed the place of the last.) In this, we follow Christ in his incarnation, humiliation, and exaltation.
In summary of the relevant Biblical teaching, then, there is not a single instance of a titled sermon. However, there are plenty of titles in the Scriptures providing analogical evidence, at least. So from all these usages, we can still profitably ask, “What use does the Bible make of a title?” That is, “What exactly can a divinely sanctioned title do?”
- It identifies the individual bearer as an assigned name does.
- It describes or characterizes the bearer as to its present or future qualities.
- It confesses what the title user/hearer is trusting the title bearer to fulfill (positively); or, it repels the user from the title qualities, i.e., the works of darkness of Ephesians 5:11 (negatively).
We can summarize this more precisely by observing the first two are applicable to the title bearer, the thing being titled. The last two concern the audience or hearers using the title:
The Biblical Uses of a Title
A. Affecting the Bearer
1. Identification by Name
2. Description of Qualities
B. Affecting the User
1. Affirmation/Confession of Qualities
2. Enticement/Conformation to Qualities
A couple of open-ended questions remain for further consideration. Does this biblical usage, derive mainly from personal titles, carry over directly and fully to sermons, whether in written or oral form? And, if the answer be yes in the whole or in the part, why does the Bible not evidence directly such title use for its sermons and documents? The two most obvious answers are not very satisfying: the lack of cultural progress in the area of oral communication; and that the issue is too peripheral to the central theme of redemption in Christ to warrant any more specific attention by the Biblical writers. This remaining element of biblical ambiguity invites corroboration for the use of titles from the secular sphere of life and work. I hope to address this matter in the context of building a case for an integrative use of titles in part two of this article.
Rev. Dr. Jim Cowman holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. For the past 14 years he has served Lead Pastor at the Wyandotte Alliance Church in Wyandotte, Michigan. This past summer he was honored for his 27 years of service with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, having served in three C&MA churches, including a new church plant near Rugters University, (“Grace Alliance Church”). In addition to being an online adjunct Professor in Crown College’s Christian Ministry department, he has also served 12 years on the Ordaining Counsel of the Great Lakes District located in Ann Arbor, as well as the Ordaining Counsel of Bethesda Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan. He welcomes your emails/comments with regard to his article: firstname.lastname@example.org