I’ve heard it said that cross-referencing is for weak preachers.
I understand the sentiment.
The preacher cannot find enough juice in the sermon text so he reaches for fruit in verses from other books of the Bible. The weakness would be the failure to see sufficient riches in the primary text. If the preacher would meditate deeply on the primary passage, there should be plenty there for a full sermon without the inter-textual interruptions.
Yet there is a place for cross-referencing. As with anything, it can be abused and it often is. I’ve gone through phases from extremely limiting it to being more free with it. At this point there are some guiding principles that I try to keep in mind. Sometimes I find it totally unnecessary and, truth be told, the ideal sermon in my mind has none. But sometimes I find it helpful and I use the minimum that I think I can get away with.
Here are several of the guidelines I try to follow:
Cross-referencing: When Not to Do It
When there is enough to unpack in the text at hand
Don’t reach for familiar texts just because this one is unfamiliar. Do the work it takes to really see the value where you are. How does the author unfold his point and why is that important? Explain the crucial role of a key word, the primary tension, a relevant detail about the life-setting of the original audience. More often than not there is more there than we can cover in a sermon.
When the text explains itself sufficiently
When I see someone cross-reference in a sermon I think, “Does the supplemental text explain anything that the primary text doesn’t already explain?” If it doesn’t, it’s not needed. The authority of the one verse saying it should suffice. Also, recognize that once a point is proven it can be counter-productive to keep hammering it down when they are with you.
When afterwards listeners would have a hard time recalling what passage they were in
Too many cross-references and the primary text may get lost in noise. Especially if you are responsible enough to briefly orient your listeners to the context of each cross-reference.
When listeners leave feeling like in order to understand one passage, they must understand a dozen
Congregations learn to study Scripture largely through our preaching. We want to show them that Scripture is accessible. When we communicate that numerous texts need to be understood in order to learn from any one passage, we do them a disservice.Congregations learn to study Scripture through our preaching. Show them Scripture is accessible. Click To Tweet
Cross-referencing: When to Consider It
When there is a widely misunderstood or controversial point in your text
You may want to use some cross-referencing to show that what we are witnessing in the primary passage is not isolated or at odds with the rest of the biblical canon.
When you’re in a difficult text that is less clear and could use the voices of other more clear texts
When you’re in an OT text and there is NT commentary that sheds light on how to understand it, or vice versa
When you perceive there is a barrier disallowing the listeners to receive the import of the current text
I think of a recent sermon on Psalm 104 dealing with God’s sovereignty. I felt I had to go outside of Psalm 104 to help them understand a prevalent question that the psalm doesn’t explicitly address: why God allows natural disasters to happen to “good people.” I went to Jesus’ comments on the tower of Siloam.
• When the references are highly familiar passages (like the parting of the Red Sea or Cain killing Able) you can often get away with referencing it verbally without turning them to the passage. This keeps you in the primary text and shortens the time you spend in digression from it.
• If you think the listeners need to see the cross-references, consider putting them on the screen (if you have one) so that they don’t have to practice “sword-drills” in order to keep up with you. Even those using electronic devices would appreciate it. This also allows them to keep the primary text open in their laps — another cue that we haven’t left the text behind.
• Very rarely should you use more than two or three. Don’t inundate the listener with several cross-references when one or two would have sufficed. Find one clear passage, maybe two, that can help you explain your text. But more is not always merrier. It’s often just messier.
• An exception to the above rule: when you are pointing out particulars that require little explanation (like a rapid-fire show of “one anothers” in the NT for example). In this case you don’t have to provide much background to each of the references and you are listing them in quick order. You can string several verses together quickly simply to show how replete Scripture is with an idea. In this case, several cross-references can be useful.