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The Basics of Expository Preaching

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When we consider examples of preaching in the Bible, many of us go immediately to the New Testament—and we’re not wrong to do so. It may surprise us, though, to discover that the Old Testament is replete with early examples of expository preaching. Consider this one from Nehemiah:

All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. … They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1–4, 8)

Ezra’s preaching was far from dull, for we’re told that “the ears of all the people were attentive” to him as he both read God’s Word and “gave the sense.” He proclaimed divine truth with a sense of liveliness that any preacher would do well to imitate. John Calvin, remarking on what happens in the act of preaching, wrote,

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.1

Does the average church member have this picture in mind when he or she comes to hear the Word preached? Those under Ezra’s preaching certainly did. And if we wish for this to be true in our churches, we must pray zealously that God would break into our congregations, revealing His strength by His Word to our people. Getting to this place will require the hard work of diligent exposition.

So, what are the basics of expository preaching? To answer this question, we’ll examine its definition, dangers, and lessons through a biblical lens.

A Definition of Expository Preaching

Simply put, expository preaching is preaching that begins with the Bible. This doesn’t mean that every sermon must begin with the phrase “Please turn in your Bibles to such and such a passage,” although that is a good practice. Rather, beginning with the text means that regardless of the introductory content—whether a current event, a song lyric, or a pastoral issue—it’s immediately clear to our people that the biblical text has established the sermon’s agenda. The expositor allows Scripture to frame every part of his sermon. For this reason John Stott contended that “all true Christian preaching is expository preaching.”2

Expository preaching is preaching that begins with the Bible.

Exposition is more of a method than a style of preaching. Topical, devotional, evangelistic, textual, apologetic—these are all preaching styles. But as a method, exposition can be applied to a wide variety of sermon types as the occasion demands. What’s important in exposition is that the preacher and his people are anchored to the Bible, allowing the text to establish both the sermon’s framework and content.

Looking at it from another angle, we might ask of ourselves: “Does this sermon answer the ‘So what?’ question?” Exegesis answers the “What?” of the biblical text, exposition the “So what?” As such, it’s possible to preach exegetically without preaching expositionally. True exposition bridges the gap between, for example, Paul’s first-century letter to the Corinthians and the twenty-first century Christian. It always fuses the horizons of the world in which the individual lives with the world out of which the Scriptures come.

The Dangers of Expository Preaching

Given the case for exposition made above, considering its dangers may seem odd. But even good things can pose dangers if handled improperly. As preachers, we must guard against two assumptions: on the one hand, that our message is irrelevant; or, on the other hand, that our message is immediately relevant.

With the first assumption in mind, we should realize that we will almost always be preaching to at least a handful of skeptics. As we preach, they’ll think, This is irrelevant! This is nothing but a religious man giving a religious talk. Therefore, we must strive not only to offer good exegesis (helping the listener understand the text’s meaning) but also to establish its relevance in our hearer’s world.

The twin danger is assuming that our message is immediately relevant. Our hearers often wish for us to move on from interpretation and get right to application. They want to know what the text “means to them.” This pressure to appease and apply can grip a preacher, rushing him to personalize the text for his people too quickly. But it’s imperative we recognize that without proper exegesis there can be no true application. Very simply, before people can say what this means to me, we have to tell them what this means in the first place.

Lessons for Expository Preaching

Dick Lucas, a prominent Anglican preacher, has dedicated his life to training men in expository preaching.3 As one can imagine, his instruction on the subject is extensive. We will do well to examine three of Lucas’s lessons on preaching: speaking by listening, getting the melodic line, and holding the line.

Speaking by Listening

If we wish to be effective speakers, Lucas asserts, we must first be listeners. Mark 7 illustrates this point:

They brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7:32–35)

Of course, we acknowledge that this miracle really happened. But we also recognize that this text is a kind of paradigm for preachers, in that until our ears are opened and we learn to listen to God’s Word, we will not effectively communicate truth. One of the reasons we’re ineffectual in our speaking is because we’re poor in our listening. When we speak by listening, we’re bringing the Bible to bear on our congregations. We’re doing the work of the expositor.

As we listen to Scripture, it’s imperative that we’re listening to the very text of the Bible, not merely our frameworks for it. All of us have frameworks—systematic structures and influences that we bring to the text. These frameworks are a blessing, for they help us make sense of the Bible’s overarching storyline and particular doctrines. But if the framework predominates our thinking, it will inevitably dominate the biblical text, preventing us from truly listening. Whenever we approach the text, we must think, Text first, framework second.

Until our ears are opened and we learn to listen to God’s Word, we will not effectively communicate truth.

How do we do this? In a word, through careful observation—looking at the text in a way that helps us understand that we don’t really understand. A grave danger preachers face is thinking we have a solid grasp on the text before we do. Our observation (or lack thereof) will be felt by our people too. There is little excitement felt when we parrot someone else’s discovery—say, in a commentary or another sermon on the text before us. But when the Spirit illuminates a nugget of truth straight from the text itself—now that’s exciting! And that’s what we’re after: speaking by listening through careful observation.

Getting the Melodic Line

A second lesson that Lucas offers deals with the importance of context in our study and preaching of Scripture. He refers to this as “getting the melodic line.” In music, it’s one thing to play a variety of disconnected, individual notes. But that’s not melody. Only when a musician strings those notes together and puts a time to it is there a melodic line. So it is with our preaching: it’s not enough to explain a single verse; we must show our people how that verse fits into the whole of biblical revelation, into the melody of redemptive history.

A grave danger preachers face is thinking we have a solid grasp on the text before we do.

Getting the melodic line of Scripture can be applied to whole books and particular verses. Consider two examples:

  • Romans: What’s the book of Romans about? It‘s a compendium of theology, many say. But while that’s true, is that really the book’s purpose? As we read, we’ll notice the book is bookended with two similar Gospel statements: 1:16 (“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”) and 16:26 (“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…”). These texts underscore the universal appeal of the Gospel. It’s Paul’s defense of world evangelization. That’s the melodic line running through the book’s sixteen chapters.

  • Luke 13:10–30: We have in Luke 13 another of Jesus’ Sabbath-day healings followed by a set of parables on the kingdom of God—two seemingly disparate accounts. But these two accounts are actually two correlated notes in the melody of Luke’s Gospel. It’s true that we could preach the two sections separately and even do it faithfully. But when we view them together, we see that Jesus’ healing of the woman in 10–17 is a foreshadowing in action of what He would teach in word concerning the nature of God’s kingdom—which gives us our melodic line.

Holding the Line

In dealing with the text of Scripture, Lucas offers his third lesson for preaching: hold the line.

“The line” in his metaphor refers to Scripture’s plain instruction. He urges us against deviating above the line, saying more than the Bible says, and below the line, saying less than the Bible says. Below the line, we might imagine such errors as liberalism, partisan neo-evangelicalism, church-growth pragmaticism, etc.; above it, fanaticism, pietism, emotional Pentecostalism, etc. Against all of these deviations, our expository emphasis should be on the plain teaching of God’s Word.

Make no mistake: if we hold the line, we’ll encounter difficult truths to bring before our congregations. Faithful preaching is not easy. The question we face each time we prepare a sermon is whether we will truly lead our people or merely be liked by them. If driven by a desire for acceptance, we’ll dip below and rise above the line all of the time. But those who hold the line, leading their churches, are those whom God commends.

Getting Back to the Basics

Exposition is simple, but it isn’t easy. Think about it: Ezra’s pattern in Nehemiah 8 was exceedingly straightforward. God’s Word was opened before God’s people and proclaimed through God’s man. Yet God worked mightily through this simple act.

As we approach the immeasurably significant task of expository preaching, we should pray that God, through His Word, will train us as students—ministers who are careful not to tell the text what it means but to discover what it means. In the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:7, we ought to think over the text, listening to its message that we might in turn speak it truthfully and see lives changed by it.

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Basics of Expository Preaching” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates.

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  1. John Calvin, sermons on 2 Timothy 1:2 and Ephesians 4:11–12, quoted in T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 42. ↩︎

  2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (1982). ↩︎

  3. Dick Lucas’s ministry, the Proclamation Trust, houses much of his work; see The lessons surveyed in this section are developed from Alistair Begg’s personal notes on a talk delivered by Lucas in 1983. ↩︎

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