It was a rare opportunity; what I call a stay-at-home-do-nothing vacation. Including a Sunday. The kind of vacation I love, my wife hates, and the kids tolerate! So, after a spirited debate about where to worship, we compromised. The kids went to our church, I went else where, and my wife reluctantly accompanied me. For the morning service I selected a large evangelical church in the area which many of my acquaintances attended. I was especially anticipating this opportunity.
As we were walking into the auditorium, I remarked to Judy that I had left my Bible in the car. But, unfortunately we were late so I chose not to return to get it.
The place was jammed. I think we must have snagged the last two chairs just in time for the kick off; ha, I mean the opening song. The music was upbeat with audience enthusiasm to match. The worship leaders were well rehearsed. In fact the performance went off without a hitch. Finally the preacher moved to center stage and….well, I am not sure what he did. Perhaps it was a speech; he did talk to the audience. He was easy to listen to and appeared to have a pleasing manner. It was all very nice. Perhaps even helpful. The Bible was alluded to. It was not, however, read. Nor explained. Nor commented upon. In fact, I noted that, like me, few people had Bibles. Whatever it was, it was not preaching.
As we hopped into the car, Judy remarked with obvious disappointment, “well, I guess we didn’t need your Bible after all.”
That evening, hoping to be fed the Word, we slipped into the service at a well established conservative church in the area. In contrast to our morning experience, the music and elements of the service were very traditional. And then came the preacher. As he opened his Bible the rustling of pages turning could be heard throughout the comfortably full auditorium. I was ready for a meal! But alas, I was soon buried by inane details served up in a hodgepodge of Bible bingo.
As we hopped into the car, Judy remarked with a mischievous grin, “well, I guess we didn’t need your Bible after all.”
What gives? As the little old lady in the famous Wendy’s commercial of a past decade wanted to know, “Where’s the beef?” Unfortunately, our experience that Lord’s Day is not extraordinary. Just what has happened to expository preaching in evangelical circles?
I do not purport to have all the answers. I can not even ask all the right questions. Certainly, this brief paper allows for only a cursory summary of the issue. In fact, I am rather uncomfortable addressing the issue of preaching in this manner. It smacks of the seemingly endless array of “how to” seminars which address the latest hot topic in religious circles. Of course these seminars are hosted by so called experts whose bottom line is, “if you do it my way I guarantee success.” My hope, therefore, is to raise some questions which will stimulate meaningful discussion and debate resulting in profit for Christ’s church.
Brief Biblical Overview
Perhaps a review of Scripture terminology would be helpful in establishing a basic orientation regarding preaching. The words used in the Old Testament to convey the notion of preaching range from narrow terms to the very common ar'q', a primitive root with the idea of accosting a person met (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, # 2063) and normally rendered “call”. For instance, this is the term used to describe Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh or the work of such leaders as Nehemiah (6:7).
The author of Ecclesiastes, is designated as tl,h,q “a public speaker in a gathered assembly or one who collects sentences” (TWOT, #1991), hence “The Preacher.” Yet Ecclesiastes is wisdom platitudes rather than sermons. Some have noted a relationship between this term and the Greek eklhsia, assembly!
On the other hand, there is rfB meaning to bear news, publish, preach, show forth, to gladden with good news or to announce (salvation) as good news. The term specifically referred to news about military encounters (TWOT, #291).
So, the Old Testament provides useful background to the concept of Christian preaching. The sense of proclaiming or telling good news about a specific subject is evident in the Old Testament literature.(Synonyms of the Old Testament, Girdlestone, p. 222).
In the estimate of some there are thirty-one words used to describe preaching in the New Testament (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel, vol III, p. 703).
Three nearly synonymous terms are particularly noteworthy. The common term is khru,ssw and related forms, which normally express proclamation or announcement of God’s message of salvation. Because the term itself draws attention to the action of proclamation itself, the content of the proclamation must be identified when using this term. The emphasis, then, is on the act of making known the facts of salvation. It is fascinating, if not instructive, that it is said of the herald (kh/rux) in extra-biblical usage that, “It is demanded…that they deliver their message as it is given to them. The essential point about the report which they give is that it does not originate with them. Behind it stands a higher power. The herald does not express his own views. He is the spokesman for his master” (TDNT, vol. III, p. 688).
The normal term for “teach,” dida,skein, denotes “continuous instruction in the contents and connections of the message.” In the Synoptics, khru,ssw and dida,skein are often used together. So Paul refers to the “pastor-teacher” as one (Eph 4:11). The content is also emphasized with eu=aggeli,zein which is almost interchangeable with khru,ssw (Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, Cremer, p.355-56).
Consequently, many deem it appropriate to conclude that, “…the one common link in all the biblical terms in their contexts is a focus on the things of God and Scripture as exclusively central in the preacher’s message” (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, Mayhue, p. 9).
A comparison of the following list of stated objects of New Testament preaching with much contemporary preaching is revealing. New Testament preaching focused on Jesus Christ Rom16:25, righteousness 2Pet 2:5, the gospel of God 1 Thess 2:9, repentance Mark 6:12, baptism Acts 10:37, gospel of the kingdom Matt 24:14, Christ Acts 8:5, word of faith Rom 10:8, Christ crucified 1Cor 1:23, Jesus Acts 19:13,Chrsit's resurrection 1Cor 15:12, the Word 2Tim 4:2, the kingdom of heaven Matt 10:7, the acceptable year of our Lord Luke 4:19, the great things Jesus had done Mark 5:20, kingdom of God Luke 9:2, and the gospel of peace Rom 10:15.
In contrast, a contemporary preacher’s subject list might look something like this: self esteem, how to make money, impeaching the president, patriotism, divorce recovery, single parenting, or dealing with emotions. This is in stark dissimilarity to Paul’s preaching as the communication of the Word (Tit 1:3) which depended on Spiritual power rather than catchy homilies (1Cor 2:4).
Defining Expository Preaching
I know of no better technical definition than that proposed by a seminary professor, “An exposition is a sermon in which the main divisions, the sub-divisions, and the sub-points are taken directly from a single passage in the exact words of the passage or in the preacher’s own words provided that they express exactly what is intended by the Biblical writer.” (System of Homiletics, Benson, p. 72). I would add that normally the most effective expository preaching focuses on consecutive sections of Scripture such as an entire book.
Regardless, the key concept is that expository preaching does not stray from the text. It is a faithful explanatory restatement and application of the text. The expository preacher first pours his energy into discovering what God has said and then faithfully and effectively proclaims such discovery to his hearers. Therefore, an expository message declares the Bible; it does not make declarations about the Bible.
Legitimate expository preaching, then, depends heavily upon and is a product of thorough exegesis. As such, exposition ultimately answers several questions: how does this passage fit with the broader context of God’s revelation?; how does grammar and syntax or other nuances such as history, geography, and culture effect the interpretation?; what did the text mean to the original readers?; and how does the message of the text apply to contemporary readers?
Thus, expository preaching takes time and energy. It is hard work; but it is worth it. After all, the preacher is handling the very word of God. It also takes a certain amount of skill. Generally, the preacher who aspires to an expository ministry will devote himself to adequate formal or informal preparation in theology, biblical languages, and biblical hermeneutics. Failing such preparation, at the very least, his toolkit will be stocked with quality tools. Of course, such tools will be regularly used!
It is not surprising then, that various pastoral scholars make strong statements regarding expository preaching. For instance, R.B. Kuiper is convinced that, “…it is a serious error to recommend expository preaching as one of several legitimate methods. Nor is it at all satisfactory, after the manner of many conservatives, to extol the expository method as the best. All preaching must be expository. Only expository preaching can be Scriptural” (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, Mayhue, p. 12).
And, a noted contemporary author in describing Puritan preaching declares, “…every man’s first duty in relation to the word of God is to understand it; and every preacher’s first duty is to explain it. The only way to the heart that he is authorized to take runs via the head. So the minister who does not make it his prime business, in season and out of season, to teach the word of God, does not do his job, and the the sermon which… is not a didactic exposition of Scripture is not worthy of the name” (Quest for Godliness, Packer, p. 281).
The Value of Expository Preaching
In my estimation, there are certain unmistakable values to consistent expository preaching; both for the preacher and the hearers.
For the preacher, expository preaching…
1. forces him to deal with the whole of Scripture, including difficult sections. For instance, when preaching through John, he can not skip chapter 6; at least not with a clear conscience or some awkward explanation. Nor can he jump over Romans 9.
2. keeps his Bible study skills current through continual use. This is a necessity if he is to survive!
3. helps him think logically and clearly.
4. requires that he maintain personal discipline of study week in and week out. Thus he becomes intimate with God and he is afforded strength for his personal faith journey.
5. gives him a better perspective of God’s broad purposes. As he handles the bulk of Scripture over an extended period of time, he senses the big picture of divine being and function and is thereby delivered from myopically dealing solely with his pet interests.
6. produces in him an awesome sense that he is declaring the very voice of God to his people. Thus, he can and does speak with authority knowing he brings a word from God.
7. allows him to deal with real life problems present in the lives of his people and yet maintain a clear conscience. Though specific people as well as congregational and community situations come to mind as he prepares, as a rule, he does not prepare with certain people or circumstances in mind. Undoubtedly he will from time to time say (hopefully to himself!), “I trust so-in-so is here Sunday” or “I sure wish so-in-so had been here today.” He will, however, preserve the liberty to interrupt an expository series in order to address specific concerns as demanded by local circumstances.
8. is a consistent outgrowth of his commitment to verbal inspiration. He recognizes that each word, indeed, each letter is precisely what God wanted written. Therefore word studies and grammar become important part of his preparation.
9. provides variety to his study as he attempts to mine the inexhaustible resource of the Scripture for semonic material. Expository preaching prevents boredom. Furthermore, he is never at a loss for preaching material (except maybe at Christmas!).
For the hearers, expository preaching…
1. brings them under the authority of God Himself rather than the opinion of the preacher. They are forced to argue with their Father, rather than their brother, the preacher.
2. opens them to the direct conviction of the Spirit as He implants the Word of God into hearts. Thus, they are extricated from manipulation by the preacher.
3. produces a relatively full knowledge and understanding of the Bible which tends toward spiritual maturity. There are no guarantees however. In fact, it is possible to sit under quality expository preaching and remain unconverted. It is also possible to attain to a high level of spiritual maturity while never experiencing good expository preaching.
4. results in both a biblical world and life view as well as a biblical lifestyle. Again, there are no guarantees.
5. brings assurance that they are not being feed the preacher’s novel ideas or private agenda.
6. confirms the notion that if they can trust the preacher to be honest with the Word even though it is not popular, though people are offended, or though it costs him something, then they can also trust him with personal matters wherein he has nothing at stake.
7. meets their greatest human need - sin.
In general, expository preaching magnifies the inspired Word and its Author while at the same time deflecting attention away from the preacher.
Pitfalls To Avoid
Let it emphatically be said that expository preaching per se is not a pulpit panacea. In fact, good non-expository preaching is probably to be preferred over poor expository preaching. Spurgeon is prime example of a highly effective pulpit ministry which did not generally feature expository preaching. So also are some of the Puritan preachers. In the final analysis, the blessing of God upon a man’s pulpit ministry continues to be a great mystery.
An expository ministry requires vigilance. The expository preacher must exercise caution lest he…
1. allows his preaching to become wooden. Building outlines around the text can easily become predictable. Reasonable creativity ought never to be stifled. As the expositor gains experiences he can (and should?) readily take liberties with the strict syntax of the passage in constructing his outline without doing damage to the integrity of the voice of God.
2. fails to answer the last question, “how does this passage apply to me and my hearers?” Sometimes time and energy are exhausted before this question is addressed. This can be fatal!
3. looses sight of people. The desired result is that the Holy Spirit would minister to people in consequence of the preached Word. The purpose is not that a superb, homiletically perfect, and exegetically sound sermon be created and delivered! Remember, “Preaching is not a lecture on the nature of God’s kingdom. It is proclamation…” (TDNT, vol. III, p710).
4. falls into pride. A story commonly attributed to Spurgeon claims that he replied to a lady who commended him for his fine sermon, by remarking that, “the devil already told me the same thing as I was leaving the pulpit.”
5. forgets to passionately and personally call hearers to repentance in response to the gospel (1 Cor 1-2).
The Demise of Expository Preaching
So why is expository preaching so rare these days? Certainly, it does not fit with the current consumer model of church marketing which is sweeping conservative circles. Meeting felt needs is the mantra of the church growth gurus of our day. More than one church planter has been advised to devote his sermonic work to topical preaching especially favoring popular subjects most likely to draw a crowd. A series of expositions of Romans 5 dealing with original sin is less likely to appeal to the unchurched than a series on money management!
Today’s pastor is bombarded with a mass of worthy endeavors from which he must select in the performance of his ministry. If wrong choices are made, he is left with little time to devote to preparation for preaching. Consequently, the default position can easily become something other than exposition.
Some preachers have no desire to undertake the continual work required to sustain a lengthy expository ministry. Contrast this mindset with the bold statement of J.I. Packer, “The only pastor worthy of the name, in short, is the man whose chief concern is always to feed his people by means of his preaching with enlivening truths of the word of God” (Quest For Godliness, Packer, p. 283).
Many seminaries are actively training prospective pastors to choose another method of preaching. Why? Because of an erroneous belief that a man may be a bad preacher, yet a good pastor! This is in vivid contrast to John Owen’s declaration, “The first and principle duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word” (Works, John Owen, vol. 16, p. 74).
The Exposition Process
So how does one go about the task of exposition? Is there a preferred methodology or chronology? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. However, several writers have offered some basic time-tested suggestions.
1. Immerse the study in prayer.
2. Read the passage in context repeatedly using several versions. Try to get the big picture. See if you can discern a central theme, issue, or principle.
3. Attempt to seek personal lessons and applications first.
4. Work through the text exegetically using all the tools at your disposal. Do your own work first before checking commentaries.
5. Check cross references using software, concordances, study Bibles, etc.
6. Structure a basic outline, preferably based on a grammatical analysis especially if the passage is not lengthy. Narrative and historical passages will require a more far-sighted approach, however.
7. Consult commentaries to see if they got it right!
8. Convert the outline into sermonic form. Be careful about contrived cleverness.
9. Develop contemporary applications if they haven’t already jumped out at you.
10. Add helpful illustrations. Often word studies are the seedbed for germane illustrations.
11. Create the conclusion, introduction, and title.
Each preacher must be convinced in his own mind regarding his pulpit ministry style. While, I feel strongly that expository preaching is the only way to go, I do not presume to pass judgment on another man’s ministry. In fact, I applaud every attempt to honor God and His Word in the pulpit even though I may argue the appropriateness of a certain approach.
My appeal is threefold. Let every preacher determine his homiletic approach based on what he deems right before God and in light of Scripture rather than matters of expediency, tradition, or culture. Further, let every preacher make preaching the central focus of his ministry. And finally, let every preacher wrestle with the reality that his ministry will one day be examined by the Sovereign Lord Himself (2 Cor 3:10-15).
I acknowledge my conviction that exegetical exposition is the best default method of preaching. However, having professed this, I also understand that equally orthodox preachers may disagree amiably as fellow laborers in Christ. At all costs we must pray for one another as one brother for the other.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.