When I was introduced to the expository method of preaching, I was quickly and totally convinced that it is the most faithful way to preach the word of God. I was also surprised by how novel it was. Not many preachers that I heard were doing expository preaching. Some proudly rejected it. But fast forward a few years. Now, it seems that everyone claims to be an expository preacher. Respectfully, I think so many of us are comfortable calling ourselves expositors because we don’t really understand the hard work of Bible exposition – which includes both faithful explanation and clear application. (For the record, when someone asks me about it, I typically answer that I am a “student: of expository preaching. So as I pontificate in the following paragraphs, be warned that I am still a young preacher with a lot to learn.)
Expository preaching explains what the text means by what it says. As the term itself denotes, expository preaching “exposes” the inherent, God-intended meaning of the text, rather than imposing some alien meaning onto the text. And in preaching, faithful exposition involves both explanation and application. John Calvin called it explication and application. And this is what John R.W Stott argues for in his classic book on preaching, appropriately called Between Two Worlds. Faithful Bible exposition builds a bridge between the world of the ancient biblical text and the world of the contemporary listener. And to strand a congregation on either side of the text, without building a bridge to the other side, is to leave the task of exposition half-done. That is, it is not exposition.
Indeed, the ultimate goal of preaching is to be faithful to the God-breathed text of scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This requires diligent and prayerful study. You should spend time observing the text. You should compare translations. You should do word studies. You should run cross-references. You should consider how biblical, systematic, and historical theology comes to bear on the text. And, yes, you should even consult sound and helpful commentaries. But simply collecting and organizing your exegetical material and taking it to the pulpit is not expository preaching. It’s not preaching at all. It’s lecturing. Remember, your exegetical work should be like a good pair of underwear. it should provide support; but it shouldn’t show.
Before your study material is ready to preach, you need to determine the authorial intent of the text and build a clear and relevant message that is in line with the dominating (doctrinal) theme of the text. I regularly pray that the Lord would help me to develop a sermon that is worthy of the truth of the text. Unfortunately, there are times when my careful interpretation of the text gets caught in the quicksand of sloppy preaching. But we should keep striving to be both faithful and clear. And not just clear. Our preaching should be compelling. We should ask ourselves before we preach, “What are we trying to do to these people?”
Of course, you don’t want to commit what Haddon Robinson calls “the heresy of application.” We avoid this as we remember that it is ultimately the job of the Holy Spirit to speak to people’s hearts. It is our job to get the word from our lips to their ears. But it the Lord’s job to get the word from their ears to their hearts. Interpretation without application is abortion. (If I am correct, this is another Haddon Robinson line. If not, I’ll gladly take credit for it.)
I am scheduled to get on a plane in the morning. And if you ask me which wing on the plane is more important, the left or the right, I will respond by staring at you with the most confused look I can muster. And I think this is how we should respond when people start debating the importance of doctrine versus application in preaching. 2 Timothy 4:5 charges us to preach the word. That’s our assignment. We are to faithfully preach the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. But that same verse also commands the preacher to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (ESV). That is, your preaching should both explain and apply
Three women were walking home after church one Sunday. One said, “Our preacher goes down the deepest into the scriptures.” The second agreed, adding, “Yeah, and he can stay the down the longest.” And the third concluded, “Unfortunately, he also comes up the driest.”
So much for our understanding of deep and shallow preaching.