In dealing with the text of Scripture, Lucas offers a 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.
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
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.