Dr. Donald Sunukjian has had more influence in the area of expository preaching on the current generation of pastors than anyone except Haddon Robinson. I remember one of my seminary professors having us watch a video of Dr. Sunukjian doing a first person narrative sermon on Esther. It was my first introduction to that type of handling of Old Testament narrative, and I was hooked.
In a new series published by The Weaver Book Company called “Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” Sunukjian fills a gap in the world of pastoral resources. When doing sermon prep, I go to language helps and commentaries for the technical help I need. I can hit up my collection of preaching books for refreshers on exposition. But what about taking the principles of expository preaching and applying them to specific texts? This is what Sunukjian does, and he does it well. His stated purpose is to “offer models of the principles presented in the textbook (Invitation to Biblical Preaching).”
Invitation to the Life of Jacob breaks the life of Jacob down into fifteen sermons. Each chapter is only about 9-11 pages long. This is not a commentary on the text, so the preacher is expected to do his own exegetical work. The great strength of these sermons is the author’s ability to tell a story. Sunukjian delves into the mindset of the characters in the narrative. He tries to understand their motives, feelings, and desires. He also gives the pastor great insight into how to preach texts that are often mishandled or simply moralised. There are also great points of application, which can be tough when it comes to the Old Testament.
Chapter one deals with the birth of Jacob. Sunukjian deals with the big idea that there is no such thing as an accident in the sovereign plan of God. Chapter two deals with Esau’s giving away of his birthright. Chapter three and four give fascinating insight into Isaac’s actions as they impact Jacob (keeping Jacob as the central character since the material occurs in his toledot).
Chapter five was the weakest chapter in the book. The author deals with marriage, and I think Sunukjian misses some important textual issues here. After stating Esau’s complete lack of concern about honoring God or his parents in his choice of wives, Sunukjian states, “The culture of the day allowed for more than one wife. The problem is not the number of Esau’s wives. The problem is that the “gods” of these unbelievers- their values, their interests- are in a different direction from the purposes God has for this family” (p. 45). He expresses the same idea with Solomon a few pages later. I have a major issue here, as the implication is that because something was culturally acceptable at that point in history that somehow it was “okay” in God’s eyes. It is clear that God tolerated polygamy, but it was never part of His pattern in creation, and polygamous relationships always came with problems in the scripture. Solomon is a much better illustration for the point Sunukjian was trying to make (that when a believer marries an unbeliever, things can go terribly wrong). Esau married unbelievers because he himself was an unbeliever. He didn’t have to worry about pagan wives leading him away from Yahweh. He was already heading away! I think this chapter could have been better done.
Chapter six gives a good idea not only of a first person narrative sermon, but it gives a twist on the text in that it turns it into a modern-day parable/reflection of the text. In chapter seven Jacob is on the way to Haran and in chapter eight he meets Rachel. In chapter nine Jacob is brought face to face with his own patterns of deception as Laban tricks him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Chapter ten gives the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel and takes the reader inside the family dynamics of the “baby race” between the two sisters and their servant girls. Chapters eleven and twelve deal with God’s provision and promise to Jacob while he works in the household of Laban, and thirteen and fourteen emphasize God’s protection as Jacob flees Laban and faces Esau. Fifteen closes with the reiteration of God’s promises to Jacob and his family.
Overall, I was very happy with this book. I love pastoral books that help preachers understand the dynamics of the text and give them insight into how to best communicate it. There were a few weaknesses. Other than the specific situation listed above, I felt there were a few places where the author was a little free in his interpretation of motives, thought patterns, and emotions. We as pastors have to be careful that we don’t go too far in assigning motives and thoughts when the text has not explicitly stated them. And since the book is not designed to include the exegetical work, it is hard to know how Sunukjian comes to some of his conclusions.
Those few issues aside, I enjoyed reading the book, and am really looking forward to seeing how Sunukjian handles different genres (the next two in the series are on Philippians and James). I feel very comfortable recommending this as a good resource for a pastor who is looking to better understand and apply the life of Jacob to his congregation.
About the author
Donald R. Sunukjian holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in Speech Communication and a Th.D. in Bible Exposition from Dallas Theological Seminary, where he taught preaching for more than ten years. He is now Professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, where he has taught preachers since 1996. He has also served as senior pastor for fourteen years.