A few years before his death, I was talking with Dr. Stephen Olford about trends in preaching. The notable British expositor spent the last twenty years of his fifty-plus years in gospel ministry teaching biblical exposition from his preaching institute in Memphis and around the globe, influencing thousands of pastors over the years to “preach the Word.” He told me of sitting in an office discussing preaching with one of the country’s best-known young pastors. That megachurch pastor was not then and, to my knowledge, not presently given to weekly exposition. Rather his focus has been on topical sermons, typically lively and visually illustrated, even elaborately choreographed. In a somewhat shocking reprimand to the older preacher, this young man said, “Expository preaching is a thing of the past.” He went on to espouse his style of preaching as in vogue with the present generation.
I have often thought of that conversation with Dr. Olford, whose influence on my understanding of preaching from the time I was a junior in college continues to the present day. Olford rightly turned away from the trendy styles of preaching to stick with the practice that continues to transform lives and congregations after twenty centuries: biblical exposition. Does that mean that some of the trendy approaches to preaching cannot minister to people? Certainly not, for if God’s Word is read and opened to any degree, that Word goes forth to accomplish His purposes. Paul even gloried in Christ being preached by those who were antagonistic toward him, stating, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I ￼rejoice” (Phil 1:18). So even with styles that will fade when the next trend rolls around, the Lord is pleased to use weak, faulty messengers to convey truth that gives life.
Yet, does that suggest that we may be careless when it comes to our approach to preaching? God forbid! As those who will give an account for the way that we handle God’s Word and shepherd His flock, we must guard against allowing opinion polls and marketers to shape the way that we preach the Word. Consequently, one does best to steer clear of any approach or preaching method that hinders or clouds or confuses the message of God’s Word. Desiring to be “trendy” melts before the gaze of Him before whom we will one day stand to give an account.
While not wanting to discourage, but rather, to clarify, all attempts at expository preaching are not genuinely expositional. I know that I have failed to expound the biblical text many times in my attempts at exposition. Some have the idea that if a nice, alliterated outline is used then the sermon is expository. But finely crafted outlines and rhyming terms do not an exposition make! Others provide a running commentary laced with quips and quotes that lacks clear explanation and application. That, too, falls short of exposition by unfortunately coming across more like a sterile, historical or linguistic lecture than the Word of God opened and applied to the hearers. Does that also mean that all exposition is monolithic? Absolutely not! One can see the variety in the sermons recorded in the New Testament, as well as faithful expositions throughout the centuries.
I have found J. I. Packer’s explanation of biblical exposition to be most helpful. “The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers, talking only in order that ￼the text may speak itself and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner ‘that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence’ (Westminster Directory, 1645).” Let’s consider a few things that Packer brings out.
First, the basis of biblical exposition is the Holy Spirit inspired, divinely authoritative text of Scripture. One must be convinced that the Bible is the revelation of God before he approaches it with a passion to expound it. God has no more to say to us than what He has spoken in His Word, yet that is much more than we can fathom in a thousand lifetimes! In reflecting on the present power of God’s revelation, Packer notes, “Which means that when we read, or hear read or expounded, the biblical record of what God said in Old or New Testament times, we are as truly confronted by a word of revelation addressed by God to us, and demanding a response from us, as were the Jewish congregations who listened to Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or Peter, or Christ, or the Gentile congregations who listened to the sermons of the apostle Paul.” With that pinpointed revelation the expositor begins his work.
Second, since the Word is divinely inspired, then the burden of coming up with something clever or unique or provocative no longer rests on the preacher as though he is just another orator attempting to impress his audience enough to keep them coming back. Instead, a different burden weighs upon him—that of serving as a mouthpiece for the biblical text to speak to the hearers. In his preparation, delivery, and after the sermon, the expositor must keep the question riveted in his thoughts: ‘Am I a mouthpiece for the text or am I using the text to say what I want to say?’
Third, as a mouthpiece for the text, the preacher engages in “opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers.” Here’s where the spade work in the study pays off, as the preacher (1) so digs into and wrestles with the biblical text until he understands it well enough to explain it, and (2) meditates on the implications and applications of the text to his hearers. Only after he has understood the text and applied it to his own life will he be ready to expound it to his hearers.
Why biblical exposition? Quite simply, because the thing that matters most to those who listen to us preach is not what we say but what God has already spoken. Our responsibility in preaching, therefore, must always be to serve as a mouthpiece for the text to speak effectively to those who listen. We’ll think more upon this subject in subsequent blogposts.