ESSAY: What is Expository Preaching?

EXPOSITORY PREACHING

I heard expository preaching before I could talk. Hardin Baptist Church called my father as their pastor when I was three months old. For the past 36 years I have listened to Bro. Ricky (Dad) preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible. He opens the word, says what God said, and applies it to life. Sunday after Sunday, he preaches expository sermons for the glory of God and the good of his congregation.

I assumed this kind of preaching was normal. In college, I found out it was not. I heard sermons online and on campus supported by Bible verses, but not formed by biblical passages. These preachers did not clearly connect their sermon points to the verses they read. They used scripture in their sermons, but only to support their thoughts and theories about life. I began to see not all preaching is the same.

Defining terms is dangerous because what we define we often kill.[1] Here is my attempt to define expository preaching without killing it. Expository preaching is the act of verbally communicating a text of scripture accurately, to proclaim what God has said to the original audience and what God is saying to the preacher’s current audience, so that hearers worship God, trust Christ, and walk in the Spirit.

Using a swimming pool, Jim Shaddix illustrates the difference between expository preaching and non-expository preaching.[2] The difference is how preachers use the Bible in their sermons. Non-expository preachers use the Bible either like a diving board or pool furniture. As a diving board, the preacher uses the Bible to jump into the sermon without referencing it again. As pool furniture, the pool (sermon) is the preacher’s own creative thought, and the Bible is pool furniture that is pointed to during the swim. In both examples, the Bible supports the sermon rather than forming it.

Expository preaching is different. The Bible is not a diving board or pool furniture. The Bible isthe pool. The expository preacher spends the whole sermon swimming in a Bible text, not just referencing it. The main point of the sermon comes from the main point of the text.[3] Expository preachers preach what God said on behalf of God, rather than creating their own sermon ideas. Expository preachers tether their sermons to the Bible.[4]

The content of expository sermons comes directly from the Bible. They contain “God stuff” and not mere “good stuff.”[5] Expository preachers find God stuff in the text by standing above, inside, and under each passage they study.[6] They stand abovefor a bird’s eye view of the whole context, insideto discover its meaning, and underto obey its teaching. The Bible drives and forms expository preaching.

Six Essential Components of an Expository Message

From my definition of expository preaching at least six essential components drive an expository message. These six elements keep God’s voice central and man’s response biblical. The first three elements show the importance of God’s voice and the last three the importance of man’s response.  An expository message can have more elements, but not less.

The act of verbal communication is the first element listed in my definition of expository preaching. Paul tells young Timothy to “preachthe word.”[7] Martyn Lloyd-Jones says preaching is “theology coming through a man on fire.”[8] Phillip Brooks links sermon and speaker when he says, “Preaching is God’s truth through personality.”[9] Jim Shaddix calls this verbal proclamation of God’s word the “preaching event” and says pastors become “humanity clothed in deity” while preaching.[10] In the preaching event the preacher, the word, and the Holy Spirit work in concert to powerfully change lives.[11]

The second element of expository preaching is communicating a text of scripture accurately. This means finding the mind of the Spirit in the text preached.[12] An expository message rightly exposes what is in the text. The expository preacher seeks to find the “biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context.”[13] The preacher must know the main idea of the text before building or preaching his sermon.

In expository preaching, the text “is not merely a resourcefor the sermon; it is the sourceof the sermon.”[14] The sermon does not come from the mind of a preacher but rather the mind of the Spirit. Expository sermons are word-centered, word-driven, and word-saturated.[15] The preacher exegetes a particular text to study the details and discover the meaning.[16] The congregation hears the discovered meaning of the text during the preaching event.

The third element of expository preaching is “revealing what God saidto the original audience and what God is sayingto a current audience.” This requires crossing the gulf between the biblical world and modern world. John Stott calls this “bridge building.”[17] Bridge building starts on the shore of the biblical world and explains what the words meant to the original people who heard it first.

After explaining the original meaning, the expositor then builds a bridge from the ancient shore to the modern world. The preacher tells a modern audience what God is saying to them through the ancient text. The main point of the text is the same for both, but the application is different according to the audience. Expository preaching is more than exegeting a text, it is communicating what a text means to real people.[18]

Fourthly, expository messages are preached so hearers worship God. John Piper argues preaching does not only assist worship, preaching isworship.[19] The aim of a sermon is first and foremost the glory of God. Expository preaching compels worship by bringing God’s glory in view through the scriptures. The whole Bible exists for the glory of God, so all sermons must too.[20]

Fifthly, expository preaching aims to compel people to trust Christ. This is done by making Jesus the hero of every text.[21] Haddon Robinson says, “Words are stupid things until linked with other words to convey meaning.”[22] Preachers must place biblical words in the context of books, and books in the context of the overarching storyline of Bible. The context of the whole Bible is the story of God’s redemption in Christ Jesus. God’s redemptive story makes Jesus the hero of every text because “Christ crucified is the ground of every good that comes to God’s people in every text.”[23]

Making Jesus the hero of every text does not mean ignoring the context to preach a sermon about Jesus. Piper argues Spurgeon never said the popular quote attributed to him, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.”[24] Piper is critical of preaching that beelines from text to cross, and says the biblical beeline is in the other direction. Rather than beelining from the text to cross, preachers should beeline from the cross to text. The beeline from cross to text shows hearers how Christ crucified empowers them to obey the commands in the text.

Compelling people to trust Christ destroys pride and despair.[25] A sermon without Christ leaves a self-righteous person proud and a rebellious person hopeless. A sermon with Christ offers hope to rebels and humility to self-righteous. When Christ is the hero of every sermon, the obedient are humbled because they know their obedience is a gift from Christ, and the disobedient are hopeful because Christ is their true righteousness. Christ-centered preaching promotes humility and hope rather than pride and despair.

Lastly, expository messages exhort people to walk in the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul says his purpose is to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among the nations” (Rom. 1:5). Expository sermons promote the “obedience of faith” by exhorting people to obey the Bible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Every text is related in some way to the new life of Jesus and the command to walk in the Spirit.[26] Preachers must show the path of life and exhort people to obey in the Spirit.

In summary, expository preachers believe God fulfills His purposes through two instruments: The word and the Spirit.[27] Expositors work hard to understand a text in its original context and then speak on behalf of God to a contemporary audience. They speak God’s word and call hearers to worship God, trust Christ, and walk in the Spirit.

Biblical, Theological, and Practical Justification for Expository Preaching

In the beginning of the Bible God said, “Let there be light,” and light appeared (Gen. 1:3). Throughout the Bible God speaks so His creatures would know Him and His ways. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, correction, and training in righteousness…” (2 Tim. 3:16). Paul affirms the words of scripture are breathed-out by God and divinely inspired.[28]

After communicating divine inspiration of scripture, Paul commands Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Timothy must preach the word because the word is the breathed-out words of God. Timothy is not told to preach his personal beliefs about philosophy or ethic; he is told to preach the word. This is the conviction behind expository preaching. God has spoken in the Bible and people need to hear what God has said. Expository preaching is built on the theological foundation of the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of scripture.[29]

Ezra the Priest is an Old Testament example of an expository preaching. Ezra stood on a platform and opened the book of the law before Israel (Neh. 8:1-5). With the book in his hand, Ezra “blessed the Lord,” and in response the people worshiped God (Neh. 8:6). Under Ezra, the priests “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Ezra and the priest opened the Book before the people and helped them clearly see what God said. Ezra and the priest did expository preaching.

In the New Testament Jesus preached expositionally. Luke records Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah during synagogue and then explaining, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 5:17-21). In this short sermon Jesus exposed the meaning of Isaiah and what it meant for His hearers. Peter did the same in his famous Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-41). Peter exegeted several Old Testament passages and pointed to Jesus as the hero of them all. In addition, Peter exegeted his audience’s need of repentance and faith. The sermon was Spirit filled and the people responded.

These examples from scripture demonstrate expository preaching as the biblical norm. The theological truth that God has spoken through His word is the heartbeat behind expository preaching. The examples of Ezra, Jesus, and Peter show expository preaching is the biblical model. The scriptural references above tell us why wemustpreach expository sermons, below are three practical reasons why we should.

First, expository preaching through books of the Bible saves time and eliminates stress.[30] On Monday morning the expository preacher does not waste time and energy stressing about what he will preach on Sunday. Instead, he turns to the next section of scripture and finds his sermon there. Rather than looking around all week for inspiration, the expositor looks in the Bible at what God has already inspired and exposes that message in his sermon. Preacher who practice expository preaching have clarity and direction on Mondays, rather than stress and anxiety.

Secondly, expository preaching teaches the congregation how to study their Bibles. During expository sermons people see how the preacher finds the voice of God in the text––and how they can too. Listeners learn how to unpack scripture as they hear passages expounded week after week. Good expository preaching teaches others how to hear God’s voice during their own study and reading of the Bible.

Thirdly, expository preaching exposes the congregation to the whole counsel of God’s word. Non-expository preachers are tempted to skip difficult passages and only preach the parts of the Bible that appear relevant to daily life. Expository preachers are bound to preach whatever the text gives, thus fulfilling Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

This section made the case for expository preaching using biblical and theological principles, and practical benefits to the preacher and congregation. In the next section, I recall my own experiences with expository preaching as yet another reason for why expository preaching is the best model.

Personal Reflections

Expository preaching exposes me to the whole counsel of God’s word. At Hardin Baptist Church my dad preached through whole books of the Bible rather than picking and choosing isolated verses. For this reason, I heard everything Paul wrote in Romans because my dad preached the whole letter to us. He did not skip hard truths like election and predestination, because they were words in the text. They were words God said through Paul, so my dad told them to us. Sunday after Sunday, I heard the whole counsel of God’s word expounded through expository preaching.

The prophets of doom declare the day of preaching is over, but this is just not true.[31] In college, I joined thousands of college students for a Passion Conference in Nashville. Standing in line I talked to students from various denominations who all said the same thing. They came to hear John Piper preach. Piper is an expository preacher. He points to the text and preaches the text. John Piper is not a hipster. He does not wear skinny jeans or look the part to reach college students with the gospel. Yet students came by the thousands to hear him preach––including me. If preaching is dead, we all missed the memo.

In seminary, I listened to Mark Driscoll from Seattle preach through podcast on my weekly commute to class. At that time, growing churches, like Northpoint in Atlanta, championed short topical sermon series to attract and keep new people. Driscoll, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. He preached expository sermons and long series through whole books of the Bible and people came by the thousands to hear him preach. He demonstrated that expository preaching can promote church growth and reach new people with the gospel.

Charles Spurgeon said the Bible is a caged lion that needs to be let out![32] Expository preaching lets the lion out. While serving as youth pastor, a church consultant called to ask what sermon series I had preached lately. I told him we were in year two of preaching through Acts and before that we spent three years in Luke. There was a long pause. He was shocked. He expected a list of youth friendly series about friends, love, and sports. Those are the series you preach to youth. But those aren’t the series we preached.

Early in my ministry I determined I had no power, words, or tricks to change teenage hearts. Instead, I had the glory of the God revealed in the word of God. Based in that I determined to let the lion out of the cage. I preached expository sermons to middle school and high school students and they got so excited about the Bible that they brought their friends. Teenagers experienced the glory and excitement of Jesus through His word. The lion ran loose, and I watched God do amazing things through His word. Instead of preaching relevant teen topics, I preached Christ crucified. And Christ crucified proved to be the most relevant topic of all.

 Conclusion

In my own life and ministry, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of expository preaching. God has spoken in his word so the best thing I can do as a preacher is to say what God has said. His words come with power and authority, mine do not. His words can move mountains and melt hearts, mine cannot. God’s words are the hope of the nations, dare I preach anything else?

In this essay I argue there are six essential components in expository preaching. Expository sermons must be based on an accurate understanding of a biblical text and say what God said in the past and what God is saying in the present. The sermon must be preached verbally so hearers can respond by worshiping God, trusting Christ, and walking in the Holy Spirit. Expository sermons are formed by scripture and communicates the voice of God from scripture.

God has made the Bible and sermons are what we make from the Bible.[33] If preaching seems dead its only because preachers are not doing a good job preaching. God is not dead. He is alive and reigning over the cosmos. Preachers are called to preach the living word to dead people, so through the word dead people might come to life. The lion roars. Preachers just need to open the cage and let out the lion. This is what Jesus and the apostles did. This is what the great preachers throughout church history did. This is what we must continue to do. Popular or not, we must “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2 ESV).

 

Footnotes:

[1]Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 4.

[2]Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003), 158.

[3]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 14.

[4]John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 122.

[5]Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon, 66.

[6]Danny L. Akin, David L. Allen and Ned L. Mathews, eds., Text-Driven Preaching (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 137.

[7]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 15.

[8]Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor, 11.

[9]Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor, 11.

[10]Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003), 41.

[11]Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon,82.

[12]Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon,4.

[13]Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 5.

[14]Danny L. Akin, David L. Allen and Ned L. Mathews, eds., Text-Driven Preaching (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 106.

[15]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 16.

[16]Ramesh Richards, Preparing Expository Sermons(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 34.

[17]John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 101.

[18]John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 101.

[19]John Piper, Expository Exaltation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 16.

[20]Piper, Expository Exaltation,18.

[21]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 80.

[22]Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 6.

[23]Piper, Expository Exaltation,269.

[24]Piper, Expository Exaltation, 233.

[25]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 68.

[26]John Piper, Expository Exaltation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 264.

[27]Danny L. Akin, David L. Allen and Ned L. Mathews, eds., Text-Driven Preaching (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 60.

[28]Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible(Galaxie Software, 2003), 2 Tim 3:16.

[29]Danny L. Akin, David L. Allen and Ned L. Mathews, eds., Text-Driven Preaching, 102.

[30]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 137.

[31]John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 29.

[32]Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 45.

[33]Ramesh Richards, Preparing Expository Sermons(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 16.

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