Please Give Me Exposition, Part 2


“Preaching in our time is in a dither,” as David Larson wrote in The Company of Preachers, a sweeping biographical review of preaching through the ages. No age has needed biblical exposition more than ours, and Dr. Larson has a simple way of defining the term.

A sermon is biblical when it says what the Scripture says,” Larson writes. “An expository sermon uses a natural thought unit of biblical text… and seeks to make the sermon say what the specific text says in its actual context. The history of preaching bears out the acute dangers of preaching out of a text rather than preaching the text…. A high view of Scripture requires a high view of preaching.”[1]

Many areas of church life change and flex with the culture, but preaching, it seems to me, should do so least of all.

In other words, everything else about church life should change more quickly than the procedures of preaching. Think of a wheel. The outside rim flies around more fiercely than the center axle.

Music styles change; clothing changes; methodology changes; equipment and facilities change; philosophies of ministry change; organizational structures change—everything changes.  The way we “do” church has evolved to the point of being disorienting.

But the act of preaching, like the axle in the middle of the machinery, changes least of all. The process of pastoral preaching was generally set in Ezra’s day when he: (1) read from the Book of the Law distinctly; (2) gave the sense; and (3) caused the people to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).

That’s what Ezra did then; that’s what I do now.

During the Middle Ages, the church lost the primacy of exposition but regained it with the Reformation (this year celebrating its five hundredth birthday). When Luther brought revival to the German church, he returned Scripture to the people by translating the Bible into the German language. In Zurich, the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, began his pastoral duties at the Great Cathedral on January 1, 1519, and on that day, he veered away from a thousand years of tradition by abandoning the church liturgy and announcing he would teach verse-by-verse through the New Testament, beginning in Matthew 1.

“It took him six years to preach through the New Testament,” said Stephen J. Nichols. “The city of Zurich would never be the same.”[2]

Shortly afterward John Calvin took a similar approach in Geneva, saying, “Let the preachers attempt nothing by their own brains; let them bring forth, as coming from God, all that they proclaim.”[3]

Calvin was preaching systematically through Scripture when the Geneva City Council threw him out of the city on Easter Sunday 1538. When he returned after his three years in exile, he resumed his exposition on September 13, 1541, exactly where he had left off three years before—on the very next verse.[4]

Using this approach makes the Bible come alive—and, indeed, it leads to very practical, application-focused preaching that easily beats out the kind of current marketing-based approach that drives so many pulpit ministries.

For example, if you want to talk about the power of prayer, how to deal with prodigals, the influence of a child, listening to God’s voice in the night, how to respond to national emergencies, how to react to extreme disappointment, the courage to face down a hostile culture, how to grapple with giant-sized problems, and the best way to spend your retirement years, preach a series on the life of Samuel from the book of 1 Samuel. The overall thrust is Durable Leadership in a Drifting Age.

Expositional sermons don’t all sound alike and they aren’t simply verse-by-verse commentaries. They require imagination and meditation and application. They are as diverse as the various genres of Scripture. Some expositions are from narrative portions of Scripture, like 1 Samuel. Others are from didactic passages like Romans or personal letters like 2 Timothy or poems like the book of Psalms.

In preaching through a book, we don’t have to always cover every single verse, but the length of the series and the thoroughness of the study should be determined by the text itself, not by the perceived short attention span of today’s millennials.

As much as possible, both the subject and the structure of a sermon should be derived and developed from the biblical text, with a view of explaining what the text says, what it means, and what it means to us.

One of the greatest benefits of exposition is the sturdy foundation it provides for pointed and practical application. Remember that Paul gave us eleven chapters of theology in Romans 1 – 11 before giving us five chapters of practical application in Romans 12 – 16.

There’s another benefit to exposition—the joy of preaching the “whole counsel” of God. The phrase, “the whole counsel of God,” comes from Acts 20:27, when the apostle Paul was describing the three-year ministry he conducted in Ephesus. His ministry there involved teaching Scripture publicly and privately, in large assemblies and from house to house (Acts 20:20). He did not shun from preaching “the whole counsel of God” (verse 27) because he was convinced the Scripture “is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among those who are being sanctified” (verse 32).

Let’s return the pulpit to the expositional preaching of the whole counsel of God, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book—just as God gave His Word to us. The methods change, but the message is as stable as the Spirit who inspired it and the Savior who died and rose again to give it power.

[1] David Larson, The Company of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 9, 13-14, 19.

[2] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 45

[3] Quoted by David Larson, The Company of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 166.

[4] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer of the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,  2009), 7.