From the realm of real estate, you may have heard the repeated refrain that identifies the most important consideration in a transaction as “location, location, location.” Over the years, this perspective has come to mind when I think about expository preaching. Without intending a hint of exaggeration, I am committed to the idea that the most important consideration for preaching a sermon is “the text, the text, the text.”
True expository preaching, by definition and description, occurs when a preacher expounds on or exposits the content of a biblical text. Obviously, this demands a careful treatment of a text’s historical, contextual, and grammatical factors. Focus on and fidelity to the text are so important that, at Southwestern Seminary, expository preaching is highlighted as “text-driven” preaching. My former student, Dace Clifton, has observed that this terminology “describes a philosophy of preaching that articulates the essential convictions of expository preaching with renewed precision.”James Dace Clifton, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic: An Evaluation of Bryan Chapell’s Homiletic on Daniel 7–12 Considering Historical Grammatical Hermeneutics,” Ph. D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019, 24. In a text-driven sermon, the text governs its substance, structure, and spirit. Why, one might ask, is this important? Here are three key observations that support the practice of expository preaching as both essential and indispensable.
Expository preaching proceeds from the authority of the text.
You do not invent the message you deliver. Yours is a derived ministry in that you are charged to “herald” (as an ambassador) the message you have received. Without a word from God, you have nothing meaningful to say. This word, according to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, has been breathed out by God and is profitable and powerful for those who hear it. Always remember that the Holy Spirit has authorized and inspired the words of Scripture in a manner with which He has not inspired your words. Your authority in preaching hinges at every point on the uniquely authorized and inspired nature of the biblical text. This is why you should “carve” as close to the text as you can. Your sermon is not primarily a platform on which you talk. Rather, as J. I. Packer put it, “Preaching is letting texts talk.”Quoted in Stephen J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2003), 19.
Expository preaching gives functional priority to the text.
Prioritizing the text in your preaching cannot be overstated. The text itself should govern what you say about it (substance), when you say what you say about it (structure), and how you say what you say about it (spirit). Your sermon’s affirmations and assertions should be linked to the text. Take the time to point your hearers again and again to the text in order to show them where you got your “stuff.” Structurally, an expository sermon is more than simply offering a running commentary on the text. Your sermon must be arranged as the text presents itself and have a concise main idea that reflects it clearly. Your sermon also should convey something of the emotion or “spirit” of the text. Delivery must reflect joy when the text focuses on rejoicing. Likewise, it should convey gravity and brokenness when the text focuses on sin and its consequences.
The prioritizing of the text extends to the use of the functional elements of illustration and application. Both should be subordinated to the explanation of the text and, in a real sense, serve it. A great illustration may inadvertently “outshine” the text rather than illuminate it. If you have been preaching weekly even for a few months, you know something of the subtle temptation to use that killer illustration when you know it fails to illuminate the text. While illustrations should illuminate the text, applications should enforce the text. That cannot happen unless your applications flow directly out of the text. Think in terms of text-warranted application. If your exegesis of the text is inaccurate, your application of it will be inaccurate. If your applications are not text-specific, you run the risk of delivering bland generalities to people who desperately need to know how to put the word to work in their lives.
Expository preaching recognizes the eternal impact of the text.
A commitment to expository preaching as the “bread and butter” of your preaching ministry is rooted in the recognition of the durability and timelessness of Scripture. As important as dynamic delivery and careful crafting of vivid language are, what changes lives is not your pulpit passion or cleverly-timed phrases. The word of God, inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit, changes lives forever. It has an eternal impact in that, like no other source, it confronts hearers with ultimate realities like life and death, heaven and hell, and hope and hopelessness.
Given the alarming biblical illiteracy of people both without and within the church, preaching driven by a desire merely to entertain or make people feel better about themselves is a prostituted stewardship of preaching’s purpose. In stark contrast, when you prioritize the text, you honor the Lord who inspired it and edify the people who hear it. Think about this sobering connection. Your handling of the text, or lack of it, sets the tone for how your hearers will handle the text. Through faithful expository preaching, you have the opportunity to model an appropriate reverence and regard for the text. You also have the inestimable privilege of assisting others in learning how to prepare their own spiritual meals.
Beware of a preoccupation, however well-intentioned, with sermonic form and style. Such fixation can lead to a neglect of the primary substance of the sermon-the text. All “sizzle” (form and style) with little or no “steak” (saying what the text says as the text says it) leads to congregational malnourishment. That’s why expository preaching is important. Give the people the steak!
Matthew McKellar is Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
|↑1||James Dace Clifton, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic: An Evaluation of Bryan Chapell’s Homiletic on Daniel 7–12 Considering Historical Grammatical Hermeneutics,” Ph. D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019, 24.|
|↑2||Quoted in Stephen J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2003), 19.|