Every pastor has his own unique personality and that is often reflected in his teaching style. But expository preaching isn't a style option. Scripture establishes it as the standard method by which God's word is to be proclaimed. So what exactly is expository preaching and what makes it so powerful?
Alistair Begg has the answers for these questions for us today on Truth for Life. Verse 29, Acts 8, the Spirit told Philip, Go to that chariot and stay near it. Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. Then he said, Do you understand what you're reading?
How can I, he said, unless someone explains it to me? So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Then comes the next question, 34, Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about himself or someone else? And then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. I do believe that expository preaching creates a hunger for the Bible, that we breed within our congregation a sense of expectation and a sense of attentive listening. And when you have a congregation that gathers in anticipation of simply a monologue on biblical matters by a kindly fellow speaking with emphasis, then you can be sure that what they expect they will probably get. But when a congregation gathers with the conviction that when God's Word is truly preached, that God's voice is really heard, then there's all the difference in the world. When you have that kind of congregation, it will draw out from the preacher a desire to be diligent with the Scriptures. And when you have a preacher who is diligent with the Scriptures, it will then in turn create that hunger and interest on the parts of the people.
Calvin expresses this notion well. He says it is certain that if we come to church, we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking, but we shall feel even by his secret power that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it. God calls us to him as if he had his mouth open and we saw him there in person. Willie Still was known for all manner of things, but most for his commitment to expository preaching and also for incredibly long prayers.
His long prayer on a Sunday morning could last as long as 20 or 25 minutes. That was simply his prayer. But on one occasion, a visitor to William Still's church in Aberdeen greeted the minister at the conclusion of the service and said to him, but Mr. Still, you don't preach. William Still asked what he meant, and the man answered, well, you just take a passage from the Bible and explain what it means.
Mr. Still replied, brother, that is preaching. You just take a passage from the Bible and explain what it means. Now he and others like him were simply following the pattern for expository preaching that is established there in that Nehemiah section by Ezra and his colleagues, godly men reading God's book, explaining it in such a way that people can understand its implications. What are the key principles of expository preaching?
Well, the first is most obvious, and that is that we begin with the text. Expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture. Well, does that mean then that every sermon will begin with the phrase, please turn in your Bible too, in terms of the approach that we take?
Well, it may, but not necessarily so. We can have people who begin by please turn in your Bible too, and then what follows is anything but expository preaching. So it would be possible to get a very good introduction, and then the rest be absolutely haywire. No, it doesn't mean that every sermon has to begin with please turn to Luke chapter 7 or whatever it is, but it does mean that even when we begin our sermon tangentially by reference to some current event or even to the lyric of a contemporary song, what it means is that it is the text of Scripture which has established the agenda for the sermon. That's what I mean by expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture.
The Bible expositor does not start with an idea or with a great illustration and then go in search of an appropriate passage. Instead, he begins with Scripture itself, and then he allows the verses under consideration to establish both the framework and the content of the sermon. Some of us in our early days very quickly fall into a trap of having a framework by which we preach which becomes almost the same all the time. And I don't want to say that it is always wrong to do this, but for myself, I've had to push myself away from that over the years to allow the content of the passage not only to establish the content of what is being said but also to force me to establish the framework in which the content is being delivered so that we allow the genre of the passage to influence us in the way in which we build the scaffolding around the structure that we're going to leave behind.
We'll say more about that later on when we get to some of the practicalities, but I thought I'd mention it just in passing. When John Stott refers to this, and he does so so helpfully in his book Preaching Between Two Worlds, he says in relationship to this, it is our conviction that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. That all true Christian preaching is expository preaching. Now we're on the wrong track if we think of expository preaching merely as a preaching style chosen from a list of possible preaching styles—namely, topical, devotional, evangelistic, textual, apologetic, prophetic, or perhaps expository.
And a number of us have come through homiletic departments that have offered us these different styles just exactly in that way. And they put them up on the board, they flipped them up on the screen, and said, here are all the different ways that you can possibly deal with the text of Scripture. Now Stott is challenging that, and he's saying that all Christian preaching that is effective is essentially expository preaching. Now what he doesn't mean by that is that this is a peculiar style of preaching, but that you've never really preached unless you have gone to a passage of Scripture and you have unfolded the passage of Scripture. Whether you're going at it from the topic of temptation or the topic of money or whatever else it is, Stott's conviction would be that it is far better for us to take the question of temptation and expound a section from James chapter 1 than it is to dance all the way around the Bible pulling out references to temptation. He's saying, do it in an expository manner, so that if you're preaching topically, preach topically in an expositional fashion.
See, that's immediately a kind of clash of the neurons or something in people's heads. They say, well, how can you preach topically, expositorily, topically? Exposition is not simply a running commentary, nor is it a succession of word studies held together by a few illustrations. We shouldn't even think of it in terms of the discovery and declaration of a central doctrine found in a passage. We can do all of those things without actually accomplishing biblical exposition in terms of the definition that I want to build with you.
Now don't misunderstand me, those things are all important, they're constituent elements, but none of them in and of themselves necessarily equals exposition. So then if we're going to be involved in biblical exposition, expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture. Secondly, expository preaching seeks to fuse the two horizons of the biblical text and the contemporary world. It is possible to preach exegetically and yet fail to answer the so what question.
And this I want to warn you against. This is the missing element in some of our preaching. We've been very, very faithful in doing the word studies as we should.
We've been very, very faithful in getting to grips with the passage as it is, and we've tried to take our people consecutively through it as best we can. But when we're all finished, we fail to answer the question that is inherent in their minds, which is so what? True exposition must have some prophetic dimension that leaves the listener in no doubt that what he has just heard is from the living God and creates in him or in her at least the sneaking suspicion that the author of this book knows them, that somebody bigger and greater and smarter than the individual who was standing up there this morning has been involved in what was taking place. Because there has been an exposition not only of the Word of God, but my soul has been exposed. And having been exposed both to the Bible and to where I'm living my life, suddenly these things have coalesced.
And I have the sense that the author actually knows me and that he's chosen to speak to me. Now if we're going to take the Bible to our people in this way and respond to the challenge of that, then we have to be careful of the sheer slackness that is involved in simply throwing at our people great slabs of religious phraseology. And without helping the individuals translate the message into their own experience, we think we can contend ourselves with having done a wonderful job and go home and hope that our wives don't throw our lunch at us in the same way that we just threw all that stuff at the people who were listening to the morning sermon. The reason that we have received this calling and received whatever training we have enjoyed is in order that we might do the diligent work of being able to respond to the questions of people like the Ethiopian eunuch who says, when asked, do you understand what it is you're reading?
The person says, how can I unless someone explains it to me? And if you go amongst the average member of your congregation and the average passage of the Bible that they're reading, if you go up to them and say to them, do you understand what you're reading? Many of them will be honest enough to say, how can I really understand this unless someone explains it to me? And that of course is the great privilege of being called to expound the Bible. Some of us have made in recent years the great rediscovery of the theological works of the Puritans. It's something for which each of us, I think, are grateful.
But there is an inherent danger in it. And that is the proliferation of young men whose pulpit delivery owes more to the 17th century than to the 21st. And so they found these sermons that had 74 points, and they decided, I'm going to try this out on my people. And they're at, say, now 36th grade. The poor pastor's wife has been holding onto the seat for about 25 minutes.
Her knuckles are absolutely frozen in position. She'd been longing for him to say something that actually related to anybody around her, and it hasn't happened. The benefit of Puritan writings is not to enable us to speak in 17th century language. The benefit in Puritan writing is probably to remind us of the glory of God and the grandeur of the Scriptures, and then to interpret it for the 21st century. Well, you say, well, the problem is arguably far more significant at the other end of the spectrum, and I think that's probably true, where we find sermons that are overly steeped in the issues and interests of the contemporary culture. The people think they're doing exposition, but they're not. What they're doing is they're seeking to establish contact with the listener very, very quickly, but the connection of what they're saying with the Bible is so slight that it fails to establish the link between the world and the Bible and the personal world of the listener. So you see, on the one hand, the danger of an exegesis which makes no contact, and the other, the danger of an approach which seeks to make immediate contact and yet is not grounded in the Scriptures. This individual can think that he's doing exposition simply because he has a running commentary, simply because he's reiterating the Puritans, or simply because he's discovering Christian doctrine or whatever else it is, but he may not be making contact at all.
This individual is rejoicing in the fact that he has made immediate contact, but when the people go out, they say, what did that have to do with the Bible? See, he hasn't done biblical exposition. The preacher's task in exposition is to declare what the Word says, to explain its meaning, to establish the implications so that no one will mistake its relevance. Whatever we're doing, whether we're preaching the Ten Commandments, whether we're doing a series on the seven deadly sins, whether we're expounding Isaiah 53, our task in exposition is always the same, to declare what the Bible has said.
If we're going to do that, we need to understand what has been said. We need then to explain the meaning of it and to establish the implications of it so that no one will mistake its relevance. Third thing I want to say is that not only does expository preaching begin with the text and seek to fuse the two horizons, but expository preaching encourages the listener to understand why a first century letter to the church in Corinth could ever be relevant to a 21st century congregation living in Cleveland. Expository preaching encourages the listener to understand why it is that some ancient book—I just chose Corinth because it fits with Cleveland—could possibly be relevant to them since they're living in Cleveland.
And it is vital that the listener does not leave mystified by the way in which the teacher has dealt with the text. Fusing the two horizons is crucial, but he must do so in such a way as his people begin to learn by example how to integrate the Bible with their own experience. And there should be young men growing up in our congregation that are saying, I think I can do that. I think I'm getting that.
I think I understand that now. I've listened now for seven or eight months, and I see the way he's doing that. I'd like to have a go at that. I'm going to seek an opportunity, maybe to speak in an old people's home or to the youth group or something else. I'm going to try this biblical exposition. I can see how he does it. He just reads the passage of Scripture, he explains the meaning, he unfolds the implications, and then he sets it forward from there.
I'm going to have a go at that. Now if the twin dangers for our listeners are these, then we need to pay attention to them. Consider number one of assuming that our studies in 1 Corinthians, for example, are totally unrelated to them at all. And that's why you see, because they believe that they're trying to go to churches where there are sermons emblazoned across the board that are seven principles for living with your wife.
Five ideas for a healthy financial background, how to have a theological perspective on your checkbook and all these different things. And people say, well, let's dash off to these places because this is thoroughly relevant. But the fellow over here is simply, he's doing something going with Corinthians. I don't know where Corinth was.
I think I saw it on our map sometime. But it's obviously completely bogus and it's irrelevant. Now loved ones, I understand why they would feel that way if when they come to hear our preaching on 1 Corinthians, they just walked into the 17th century, you know. And we had a whole lot of stuff for them that was totally unrelated, it was full of cliches and shibboleths and a bunch of stuff in the language of Zion. What I was saying was the danger is that they will regard studies, expositional studies in the book of Corinthians as just totally irrelevant. I'm pausing there to say, and they may well be right, which is the danger that we face of making our approach to the teaching of 1 Corinthians so dull, so boring, so unrelated that our friends are saying it is totally irrelevant.
You see? Because what I'm saying is this—if I can stay with my own meager train of thought—what I'm saying is, we are going to drive people into all of those pragmatic environments unless we are able, by the enabling of God's Spirit, to show them that exegetical, expositional teaching on 1 Corinthians is the most beneficial, dynamic, live, boldly attractive material that they could ever encounter on the Lord's Day morning. And we're not going to be able to do that in our own strength. We're going to need the Lord's power. We're not going to be able to do that simply by reading ancient books.
We're going to have to do that by thinking clearly, working hard, being diligent, and getting about the business—falling on our face, picking ourselves up, trying again, changing this, and moving forward—until we begin to get in a flow where it is clear that God is truly honoring his Word as it comes through us. And we dare not contend ourselves by simply saying, let them do what they like with it. I gave them six verses, it's up to them. No wife would deal with their children in that way. No doctor would deal with his patients in that way, if he was worth his salt.
And no pastor must either. We are to be gentle among them, as a mother caring for her children. We are to go to the ones who clearly, when you give the assignment and you remember in school when the guy said, now, write down here the first three things that come to your mind having read this poem, and 20 minutes later he sees you, and you're still sitting there and you have a blank sheet of paper.
And the teachers that are worth their salt are the ones who'll come and kneel down beside you, and try and help you along, at least to get something on your page. And we need to recognize that with our people. Because some of them assume that the message is irrelevant. And to those who assume that it is irrelevant, all that I've just said is vital from the preacher's side. I have to work hard to ensure that I've not simply done good exegesis, but that I have also helped the listener to understand the meaning of its text, that I have labored to establish its relevance to the listener's personal world. For example, in addressing the doctrine of the incarnation, we're surely not going to content ourselves with ensuring that our listeners have grasped the instruction that God became incarnate. But at least part of our application will be to point out the implications of this great principle of incarnational mission.
And to establish that link in the minds of our listeners, we might say something along these lines. The ministry of Jesus was one of involvement, not detachment. And therefore, let me remind you as you go back to your places of employment tomorrow, that you cannot minister to a lost world unless you are in it. Now of course, we could have told the people that without dealing with the matter of the incarnation.
We could have simply said to them, you know, it's very important that you're in the world. But having exegeted the passage, which had to do, let's say, with John 17, we have then pointed that out to them, so as to show those who regard it as immediately irrelevant that it is actually very relevant. The flip side of the concern, though, is that there are individuals who regard the message as immediately relevant. Not irrelevant, but immediately relevant. And this is the kind of listener who wants to move immediately to application. Don't waste time, he says, on going through it.
Just get to the bottom line. Tell me what this means to me. And these are the people who in our Bible studies, and incidentally somebody said, do you not believe in Bible studies?
Of course I do. We have lots of them here at the church, and we want to have as many as we possibly can. We just don't want to have them except in a correlative and supplemental dimension to the preaching of the Bible. They reinforce it in the same way that the scribes or the elders moving around the crowd in Nehemiah chapter 8 were reinforcing the teaching that was given from Ezra as he gave sound of the word from the large wooden platform. And these people in the Bible studies don't want immediately to say, well, thank you for reading that passage. You've hardly finished reading the passage as the leader, and they say, what this means to me is, they say, well, with all due respect, why don't you just go get yourself another cup of coffee and hold that thought maybe for the rest of your life? Because we're not remotely interested in what it means to you.
Not yet. We may be in a minute, but we are not interested in what it means to me until we have discovered what it means. Because it is only once we know what it means then we can make any application as to what it might mean to me. And without having established, and this is the role of the pastor and the teacher, without having established the meaning of the text, we daren't allow our people or ourselves immediately to jump off and make application to our circumstances. The rush to personalize the text, removed from the necessary understanding of what the passage means in its original context, is a real dilemma. Whether you're someone who sits in the pew or stands on the pulpit, good Bible teaching is essential. We're listening to Truth for Life.
That is Alistair Begg with the key principles of expository preaching. This is a time of year when many of us in the United States are already starting to look ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday. And there's a lot involved with planning the menu, inviting guests, preparing the schedule. The real question is, do we build into the schedule time to give adequate thanks? The book we want to recommend to you today is a book written with that goal in mind.
I think you'll love the title. It's called The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks. This is a book that acknowledges that we simply don't thank God often enough or sincerely enough for all that he has provided. And we shouldn't just cordon off one season of the year, Thanksgiving, to give thanks.
We should do it every day of the year. Learn how this practice will lead to a more joyful life. Request your copy of The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks when you donate today. To give, you can tap the book image in the mobile app or visit us online at truthforlife.org. I'm Bob Lapine. Join us again tomorrow to find out how expository preaching benefits the pastor as well as the congregation. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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