James M. Hamilton Jr., professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, vividly remembers the first time he heard the Bible preached like a story. As a college student at the University of Arkansas, Hamilton began listening to the sermons of Tommy Nelson, pastor of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas. Nelson didn’t preach topical sermon series like many of his peers during that time, but walked through the storyline of Scripture in a way Hamilton, an English major, recognized.
“This was the first time I had heard someone preach that way, and he taught the Bible the way my college English professors taught great works of literature, explained their literary structure, explained how this passage relates to previous passages, then applied it to life today. That was revolutionary.”
After graduating from Arkansas in 1995 with some youth pastoring experience — including preaching his first sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 (“I didn’t know what to do with verses 9 through 11!” he says now) — Hamilton decided to pursue seminary studies in preparation for a Ph.D. in Bible and Theology. As a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, Hamilton developed strong relationships with several professors, including notable Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace, under whose supervision Hamilton and Boyce College professor Denny Burk both wrote their Th.M. theses.
At DTS, it was rare for professors to preach regularly on Sundays in addition to their classroom duties during the week. But listening to sermons from John Piper and local preacher Skip Ryan, former pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, provided Hamilton with examples of robust, exegetically sound Bible teaching appropriate for the local church.
“I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in Bible and theology, hoping to teach at a seminary. But then when I was exposed to the way that John Piper preached and pastored and to the way that Skip Ryan preached and pastored, I thought to myself, ‘I really admire those guys.’ And if it meant being like those guys, I could see myself as a pastor.”
Hamilton continued to be drawn toward scholars who were also quite capable in the pulpit. Soon after Hamilton and his wife, Jill, moved to Louisville in 2000 so he could pursue his Ph.D. in biblical studies at SBTS, they went to hear Southern’s Thomas R. Schreiner preach. At the time, Schreiner, now James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, was preaching pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which later merged with Clifton Baptist Church.
“It was refreshing and intriguing and exciting to be one of Dr. Schreiner’s Ph.D. students and to realize that I was learning more from him through his preaching ministry at church than I was in the class,” Hamilton said. “Watching him serve the church through his scholarly endeavors was really inspiring to me.”
After earning his Ph.D., Hamilton was hired to be one of three residential faculty members at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His desire to preach while teaching did not diminish. After filling pulpits of several churches in the area, Hamilton began pastoring a new church plant in the area.
“It didn’t even cross my mind to ask permission if I could pastor and teach,” Hamilton said, “I just started doing it.”
When he was hired at Southern Seminary in 2008, Hamilton made sure to ask Russell Moore, now president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission but at the time SBTS provost and dean of the School of Theology, if he could continue preaching. Moore encouraged him to do so — as long as it didn’t conflict with his writing projects. Since then, while serving as pastor for preaching at Kenwood Baptist Church, Hamilton has authored or co-authored nine books, including 2010’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, a comprehensive redemptive-historical theology of the Hebrew Bible.
Hamilton preaches most Sundays at Kenwood — now called Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial after a recent merger — with his old seminary friend Burk filling in for him approximately once a month. Hamilton’s own sermon prep draws liberally from his experience as a Bible scholar. During an ideal week, Hamilton will start by translating the week’s text straight from the original Hebrew or Greek. After looking up vocabulary words he doesn’t know and working through the grammatical features of the passage, Hamilton will cue the Scripture in his Hebrew/Greek audio copy of the Bible, and listen to it recited.
I do think we should challenge people’s intellects and try to inspire them and treat them like they are image bearers of the world’s Creator. At the same time, I’m trying to speak to them where they are.
“It’s one thing to read through a text,” Hamilton said. “It’s another thing to hear a native speaker read it. I can hear the way the speaker of modern Hebrew is putting the phrases together, and that process has altered my interpretation of some things along the way.”
By Friday morning, Hamilton will have listened to the text in its original language up to 10 times, and have a clear mental picture of the text’s literary structure, from which he will construct his own sermon outline. Then, for each section of the outline, Hamilton’s preparation is straightforward.
“Interpret, illustrate, defend (if necessary), and apply,” he said. “Then I try to come up with an introduction and conclusion that will be helpful for people in terms of both getting their attention and telling them why this is relevant to their lives.”
Hamilton knows it can be difficult to balance proper interpretation and faithful Christian proclamation, particularly in the Old Testament, from which Hamilton teaches every semester at Southern Seminary, whether through introductory courses or advanced exegesis courses. But Hamilton thinks no sermon should ever allow congregants to leave their pew without hearing of Jesus Christ, so preachers should always exposit in light of the “whole revelation” of the Bible in addition to being attentive to the details of a text.
“I think a sermon ought to communicate the truth of the gospel and I think it ought to call people to believe the gospel, but the whole sermon doesn’t have to be the Romans Road. You can preach on Ecclesiastes and preach the gospel — and you should! Many people have said something like this: It shouldn’t be a sermon you could listen to in a synagogue and think was a good sermon.
“I’ve become convinced of the idea that the Old Testament is a messianic document written from a messianic perspective to provoke and sustain a messianic hope. Even when there aren’t messianic statements being made about Christ on the surface of an Old Testament passage, the narrative undercurrent and the gravitational hope of these passages is for a future redeemer.”
Hamilton is known for bringing hermeneutical depth to his sermons, often drawing literary parallels from passage to passage across the whole Bible. This is not a coincidence, as at the same time Hamilton learned to preach the Bible’s storyline from Tommy Nelson as a college student, he was introduced to the literary flourish of C.S. Lewis. The writings of the famous British scholar suggested a way for Hamilton to blend his growing love of the Bible with his interest in great literature.
As a junior in college, Hamilton was torn between pursuing a doctorate in English literature and a doctorate in biblical studies, but since he wasn’t all that interested in secular literary criticism, he settled on the Bible. Hamilton’s love of literature is always informing his Bible teaching, as demonstrated by his extensive use of illustrations from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
References to popular literature can serve as profound illustrations and occasionally, in the right setting, they can set up poignant applications of biblical teaching. Hamilton will write applications of the Bible into his sermons, but also tries to be aware of when his hearers’ attention is beginning to drift, and will adjust accordingly — either by applying the text directly or by more clearly pointing out the logic of the passage.
“I’m not saying I’m always good at this,” Hamilton says with a chuckle. “Sometimes people indict my preaching for being too academic, but I’m trying not to be at too high an academic level. I do think we should challenge people’s intellects and try to inspire them and treat them like they are image bearers of the world’s Creator. At the same time, I’m trying to speak to them where they are. It’s a challenge.”
Referencing a recent sermon on Psalm 63, Hamilton explained David’s line “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,” by pointing out the difference between the greasy mediocrity of Burger King and the richness of Morton’s The Steakhouse. Such a picture can make the Bible come alive for people, he said.
“I’m trying to show them the logical connections between the statements of Scripture and make it really clear,” he said. “So as I try to think through this with people, hopefully they see how to read the Bible for themselves.”
Andrew J.W. Smith is lead news writer for Southern Seminary Magazine.