It starts by asking why these lists are important enough to be included. What do these names really mean, and why should we preach on them? Let’s walk through three things to think about when you have the opportunity to preach on names in the Bible:
When you’re looking at a list, such as Paul’s greetings in Romans 16, take note of words used to describe the people in the lists. Paul uses words like sister, servant, brother, saint, patron, fellow worker, church, firstfruits, kinsman, fellow prisoners, beloved, approved in Christ, elect, mother to me… and the list goes on.
These terms give us insight into how important people and relationships were to Paul and how closely he considered the family of God. His relationship with Jesus compelled him to think about his friends differently, because his relationship with Jesus had changed his perspective on people inside the family of God. As believers, we have been rescued from incredibly long suffering at an incredibly great price, and placed together in an infinitely safe and happy place. So Romans 16 is not just a list of 27 names that meant something to Paul. If you look closely, it is rich with theology, ecclesiology, and ethics- and it teaches us how to view the family of God.
When you’re preaching from a list, look closely and see if you can find some familiar names. What’s their backstory? And why does their story matter to the greater story of how God is saving humanity?
For example, if you’re preaching the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew there are significant names all through it, as well as people who we don’t know who they are. But for the people whose identities we do know, men and women in your church can relate to their less-than-stellar characters and find comfort in the fact that God can do whatever He wants with whomever He wants. People matter to God, and just because someone’s story isn’t clean and perfect doesn’t mean that they don’t get to be part of Jesus’s story. The message that lists in the Bible speak loud and clear is that there is redemption. God is always working, in spite of our sin and wickedness.
We need to teach passages that seem boring and arbitrary because the Bible does not waste words. If names are listed in Scripture, then they must be significant enough for us to ask the questions “Who are they?” and “Why do they matter in this story?” And obviously, God cares about people because He mentions people all throughout Scripture. He uses wicked people’s stories to tell His story, and we get to be a part of that. So, we should never skim or skip over these sections that just have a list of names. Instead, let’s dive deep into them. Our churches can benefit so much from us digging deep into who these people are, and why Scripture mentions them.
So when you see a name in a list in Scripture, don’t let your eyes glaze over. Instead, ask, “Why are they singled out? What does it mean?”
On a similar note, preaching through passages with lists of names can help unify our church. It can help us understand relationships inside the church and why they matter. Paul’s perspective on relationships within the family of God is very similar to Jesus’ relationships within the family of God. As he’s dying on the cross, Jesus hands the care of Mary over to a believer, to John, not to his unbelieving brother (James), as tradition would have normally dictated. Why did He do that? He did it because spiritual relationships mattered more to Jesus than blood relationships. Jesus had an eternal perspective on family and people, so spiritual relationships took priority. Believers were not a “second family” to Jesus, they were His first family.
Going through lists of names helps us bring out lessons like this, so let’s dive deep. The Bible is not wasting words. There is meaning here, if you take the opportunity to study and find it. So I’d challenge you to find these passages and preach on them! See how it changes your church’s perspective on Scripture and relationships within the family of God.