What Is Expository Preaching?

Last month, I introduced the concept of expository preaching, an issue which can no longer be restricted to discussions between preachers, or reserved for Seminaries and Bible College classrooms. Today, exposition has become an identity marker by which to evaluate churches. In his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever lists expositional preaching as mark number one. Dever believes it is the most important characteristic of a spiritually healthy church, the foundation upon which the other eight marks are built.

Thousands of Christians are now measuring churches by the yardstick of an expository pulpit. These Christians will not accept topical preaching as regular fare, and will search until they find a church that values exposition. This topic should interest all serious believers, but first we need to understand the basic terminology.

The simplest way to define exposition is explanation. Its goal is to explain the Word of God. Webster’s dictionary defines exposition as “detailed explanation, setting forth of facts.” Exposition is the detailed explanation of a portion of Scripture, a “text.” The text for a particular sermon may be chosen in various ways, but the goal of exposition is to enable people to understand accurately what God has spoken.

Consecutive Exposition

Expository preaching can be divided into various categories. Sometimes consecutive exposition is used, at other times, random exposition may be employed. Consecutive exposition occurs when the preacher works through a sizeable portion, often an entire book of the Bible, taking consecutive texts each week until he has completed the section. Our church utilizes this approach on Sunday mornings almost exclusively. Presently we are preaching through 1 Corinthians. We began on the first Sunday in January, 2018, and are nearing the end of chapter eleven in October, 2018. Before that it was Joel, to which we devoted four weeks, and prior to that, Ecclesiastes, which required about five months. If someone should ask, “Why did you preach that this morning”? The answer is simply, “Because it was next.” No one can legitimately complain that they were personally targeted.

Random Exposition

Sometimes preachers employ random exposition, which is no less expository. The same definition of detailed explanation applies, but the texts are not consecutive. This method will be more commonly used by one who does not occupy the same pulpit every week. He may not be a Senior Pastor, or he may pursue an itinerate ministry, preaching to a different congregation each week. Preparation and delivery will be much the same, but the text is randomly chosen. If someone should ask, “Why did you preach that today?” the preacher says, “Because I thought it met a need at this time.”

Topical Exposition

It is also possible to assign the term topical exposition to some sermons. Although topical is usually the opposite of expository, if the topic is drawn from several related texts, and each main point is actually a brief exposition of one of the related texts, then the topical sermon can be accurately characterized as expositional. A series of short expositions related by a common theme constitutes genuine exposition.

Study

One of the strongest characteristics of exposition is that the text drives the message, not the other way around. Once the text is chosen, it is thoroughly studied before sermon construction begins. Only after he understands the originally intended meaning can the preacher organize a sermon.

Exegesis, the study of the text, comes before exposition, the explanation of the text. Exegesis means “to show the way, to lead or guide out.” The Greek prefix ex indicates the goal of drawing out of the text what God put in. The preacher’s first task is to understand what God intended by these words, so that he can accurately explain God’s message. This involves a careful study of the text, context, original languages, syntax, grammar, as well as customs and culture of the time and place in which this text was written.

Serious study requires significant time. Mature congregations recognize this, and encourage their pastors to study by supporting him financially, so that he can make preaching his main job, and by protecting him from unnecessary demands and distractions, so that he can study effectively. I prefer mornings for study, with afternoons devoted to other tasks. In my preparation, I devote three full mornings to nothing but the study of the text, utilizing more than a dozen carefully selected commentaries and other sources, generating as many as twenty pages of handwritten notes. I call this spade work, and I go through dozens of yellow writing pads each year.

Sermon-Building

Once the text has been thoroughly digested, the work of sermon construction begins. What is the main theme of this text? That becomes the subject of the sermon. The topic has not been chosen by the preacher deciding what he thinks might be helpful to his congregation, but it grows out of the text. What is the message God has for His people in this text? What are the main divisions of this text? That determines the main points of the sermon.

A sermon may have two, three, four, five or more points, depending upon the main divisions of the text. The preacher doesn’t say, “I think I’d like this sermon to have three main points. That’s a nice manageable number.” He says, “The text contains two main divisions, so that is how I must organize my sermon this week.” What do I need to explain about this text? That becomes the contents of the sermon. Everything grows out of the text. The text provides the theme, shapes the outline, and supplies the contents.

Only after all of this has been determined will the preacher add material, such as illustrations, applications, cross references, title, introduction, etc. Since his mind has been saturated with the text before constructing his sermon, even these auxiliary items are largely shaped by the text. Although it is impossible to remove every human opinion from a sermon, by marinating his mind in Scripture, the preacher minimizes human opinion, and maximizes divine revelation. Exposition is biblically saturated preaching. As a general rule, my own sermons usually require thirteen to fifteen hours in preparation from start to finish. Exegesis generally utilizes about half the time, with homiletics, application, and other elements taking up the other half.

Topical Preaching

Topical preaching is usually shaped more by the preacher’s thoughts than by the Bible. Preparation begins when the preacher selects a subject that strikes him as being useful. Next he considers what he would like to say, constructing his main points to reflect his thoughts about the chosen subject. Somewhere along the way he may select a “text” to use as a springboard to launch into his subject, and he may well support his main points with various “proof-texts” intended to relate his sermon to the Bible. This approach can be biblical, if the preacher is knowledgeable in Scripture, and allows the Bible to shape his deliberations. It is not that topical preaching is never biblical. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. It is not that topical preaching never involves serious study and preparation. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not. But exposition requires a stronger commitment to Scripture. It trains and restrains the preacher in a way that topical preaching cannot.

Additionally, expositional preaching begins with exegesis, the study of a Scripture passage, and an outline gradually emerges. Topical preaching does the opposite. It usually begins with an outline, after which the Bible is studied with a view to support and validate the outline. Topical and expository preaching usually begin at opposite ends of the sermon.

Topical preaching can be biblical, and it can be used by God to speak to men, but it can also too easily become personal opinion, unguided by God’s Word. Topical preaching allows more pulpit abuse than exposition, although because we still possess the remnants of our fallen nature, expositional preaching can also be abused. Nevertheless, more foolishness has come from topical preaching than expository. No wonder many serious Christians today are satisfied with nothing but the expository preaching of God’s Word.

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for this, Greg.

Your study/prep method isn't quite what I do, but the spirit of it is the same. Probably the two notable differences would be outlining and study time.

On the first, though I always interpret the text first, I don't always develop a sermon outline that parallels the text outline (especially in narrative, poetry, prophecy where outlines are far less evident). Where my "main points" differ from the text's, I do always note what is saying but I don't necessarily always do my points in the same order or even include all of them. So I'm looking for a sermonic unifying theme that addresses what believe the flock needs to hear and then I try to shape my sermon outline to address that in a clear and hopefully memorable way. I don't  think there is really any reason that the sermon's "main" points have to be the text's "main" points. The points just have to actually be in the text. Sometimes the passage has sub-sub points, so to speak, that are the best food for thought for the need of the hour.

The second noticeable difference is prep time. In the first five or six years of my full time ministry, I spent about as much time as you note here. But as I got deeper into it, I began to notice a pattern: after a (highly variable) length of time in study, I began to experience dramatically diminishing returns as far as the resulting sermon goes. That is, more time did not improve them... and began to make them worse in some cases. It's the classic problem of analysis paralysis and too much information.     ... much of what is in the commentaries is simply not relevant and belabors questions that do not materially affect the message of the passage. 

It's analogous to a cook preparing a meal spending hours studying the chemistry of starch. There are situations where chemistry is important to preparing an especially advanced and difficult dish, but usually not.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I'm always interested to know what others do.  I think one of the most important elements is starting early.  Waiting until the end of the week produces shallow sermons.  Marinating in the text over several days yields powerful insights and applications.  I'm convinced there is no substitute for this.  Sermon preparation cannot be rushed, nor can it be accomplished in a late marathon session.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

I work fulltime. I preach consecutively through books of the Bible, so I always know what comes next. But, I am doing a little side series by preaching a different passage about Christ every month for the Lord's Supper. 

I ponder my text at the beginning of the week, and might make a few notes or translate a portion of the text. I usually write some of the sermon Thursday evening, but most of it on Saturday. I don't spend nearly as much time in commentaries as I used to. I note what the passage is about, and do my own skeleton outline. Then, I consult perhaps seven exegetical commentaries, and might jot down a few notes if something is particularly amazing. Usually, there isn't. If something is particularly tricky, I translate it myself before looking at a commentary. It usually takes me about four to six hours to write the sermon, which doesn't account for any pondering or ruminating I've done earlier in the week.

When I was a fulltime Pastor, I spent the time Greg mentions and took the notes he mentions, too. I'm not convinced the sermons were better, then. Perhaps out of necessity; perhaps because I've changed my approach, I spend about half the time I used to in sermon prep. 

My latest effort, from yesterday morning, is here ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler, I think you are doing an amazing job for one who works full time.  I don't know how you do it!  My hat's off to you!  I have always been full time, so my comments are a reflection of my practice and experience.

I need to say I do not spend most of my time in multiple commentaries because I'm looking for something amazing.  When that happens, its always an unexpected bonus.  However, I have found that each commentary helps me look at the text in a slightly different way, and the variety of approaches greatly enriches my understanding.  It's not the big amazing surprise, but the subtle nuances that enrich the text for me.  Also, the reason I take copious notes is twofold:  1) it disciplines me to read the commentaries carefully, and 2) it allows me to review on Saturday when I'm putting the sermon into final form.  That review is very helpful.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Marinating in the text over several days yields powerful insights and applications.  I'm convinced there is no substitute for this.

Heartily agree. The marinating can be very distributed though. I tried -- still try -- to cultivate a habit of almost constant reflection. Lots of walks, drives, pacing the church auditorium (can't do that one anymore), reading, slow mornings. A result is that while applications and illustrations are still work, the work is often deciding what to leave out because it can't all fit.

In the old schools of rhetoric, they would talk about your copia, the well of experience, knowledge, insight, stories, quotes, vocab, turns of phrase, etc. that the rhetor always has at his disposal to draw from at need.

But I still often have to chew on a message /lesson for a couple weeks to get it to where I am happy with it.

One aspect of cultivating reflective living that I have neglected is a good quantity of the right sort of conversation. For some of us, this is by far the hardest part of living a thriving life of the mind. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I often find the best insights from folks who aren't from a safe, conservative evangelical camp. For example, for my ongoing series in Mark, I'm using these commentaries (some always, others less):

  1. Lenski
  2. Morna Hooker (Blacks NT Commentary)
  3. James Edwards (Pillar)
  4. William Lane (NICNT)
  5. Hendricksen
  6. Decker (Baylor Greek series)
  7. Guelich/Evans (Word)
  8. Matthew Henry
  9. Mark Strauss (Zondervan Exegetical series)
  10. Calvin

The most consistently helpful commentators are Hooker and Lane. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Lenski is good. (Except for baptism, where his Lutheranism is strong.)  He's helpful for understanding the Greek. I used to use him regularly, and recommended him to others.  However, now he mostly sits on my shelf looking pretty in his twelve dark green volumes.  I usually have too many other commentaries to consult, and so Lenski has taken something of a back seat in these last few years.  I use Hendricksen whenever available, and Kistemaker where Hendricksen is missing.  Both are usually worthwhile.  Beyond that, I usually try to obtain several of the best commentaries on each book that I'm expounding, and that means the authors vary quite a bit from book to book  When I'm getting ready to begin a new book exposition, I usually take a look at whatever's available on line at CVBBS.  I find their selections are generally solid.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Greg wrote:

What is the main theme of this text? That becomes the subject of the sermon. The topic has not been chosen by the preacher deciding what he thinks might be helpful to his congregation, but it grows out of the text. What is the message God has for His people in this text? What are the main divisions of this text? That determines the main points of the sermon.

This is important. Why did God move the author to write it? What did the author intend the original audience think about the passage? What would the original recipients have thought about it? For example, what's the point of Jesus walking on the water (Mk 6:45-52)? The pastor has to make several decisions:

  • Should he fold in the synoptic passages, or handle Mark on his own, according to his own terms? 
  • If you bring in Jn 6:14-15 to give context to Mk 6:45, should you also deal with Matthew's account of Peter walking on the water?
  • What about Matthew's addition of the disciple's confession that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt 14:33)? Mark didn't include this, which means he didn't want to emphasize it (or, perhaps, wasn't aware of it). Mark's account is different than Matthew's; why? Should you deal with alleged synoptic discrepancies, or just let Mark be Mark? 
  • Beyond all that, what is the point of this epiphany? Is it an allegory about how Jesus will be with you in the storms of life? Is this legitimate? Why, or why not? 

I believe this was a deliberate epiphany by Jesus to show the disciples who He is, in the aftermath of the disastrous sermon on the plain near Bethsaida (and the accompanying miracle) the afternoon before. In short, it's a passage to show us the disciples still don't "get" who He is. The key is Mk 6:52, which tells us they were astonished at Jesus walking on the water "because they did not understand about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were blinded," (my translation). 

If this is the case, then what application do you give to people? What should you leave them with? This, in my opinion, is why I don't think MacArthur is a very edifying preacher. He gives little to no application. The passage is about who Jesus is - He's God the Son, co-equal, co-eternal, and incarnate, right in front of them. What should you leave the congregation with as they contemplate lunch? 

And, you need to do all of this ... in perhaps 40 minutes! This is how it turned out, yesterday

Preaching is the culmination of a whole constellation of skills and competencies. I was never taught how to preach. My preaching classes in Seminary were not helpful, and I'd been preaching for years before I took any homiletics class. At best, they helped fine-tune a thing or two. But, I believe preaching prep is the task of a local church, not a Seminary.

So many things can go wrong from text to sermon. I continue to believe basic teaching ability cannot be taught; it has to be a gift. This is why it's essential that local churches exercise quality control during ordinations; if a guy can't preach, don't ordain him! It doesn't matter how nice he is, or how much theology he has - if he can't teach his way out of a wet paper bag, then don't ordain him!  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

I've heard "old timey" preachers say that preaching is "caught, not taught."  There is much truth in that, no doubt.  God must prepare, equip, call, and enable preachers to be effective.  Still, much can be taught.  I learned a lot in college and seminary.  I learned a lot by listening carefully to many preachers during my younger years, and taking careful notes of most of the sermons I heard.  I learned a lot by teaching young preachers who wanted to be trained for ministry.  Teaching others forces you to think more carefully about what you do, why you do it, and how to explain to others.  If you can't explain it to others, you don't understand it very well.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

You can refine and polish up a lot regarding preaching, but there has to be a foundation there to begin with. The bedrock gift to teach must be there. It's a gift from God, just like many other things are. Some people have it. Others don't.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that if we're going to arrive responsibly at applications, our exegesis ought to be reaching in to some portion of Biblical and systematic theology, and for that matter if we're going to have those tools at our hands, we're going to need some degree of topical analysis of the text, no?

And along those lines, it strikes me that topical preaching at least ought to be something of a series of expositions combined with a harmonization of those texts--as well as a reason for including them.  What we're talking about with objectionable topical preaching, then, is really not that a pastor is searching through the Scriptures seeing and harmonizing what is actually said, but rather that he's cherry-picking and maybe even twisting passages to say what he wants to say.

One thing that also strikes me is that while I don't agree with everything MacArthur says, it sure would be nice if the pendulum would swing a little bit the way Tyler says he operates; perhaps he refrains excessively from making applications, but it would be nice if a lot of others were a little more diligent about going through that Biblical/systematic theology before dashing off to an application.  

Regarding teaching being a gift, 1 Corinthians 12 certainly seems to indicate that some have the ability to teach and that office and the gifts of wisdom and discernment to exercise it well, but we ought to contemplate that if there is indeed a priesthood of all believers, all of us should be teaching something at some time, no?  It brings to mind the question of whether.....there ought to be something spectacular in a truly Biblical gift of teaching vs. what we often see today.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

My thinking on application has shifted a bit over the years. I used to see lots of application as hugely important but then realized what I do myself when listening to preaching: much of the application is is self derived and not limited to what the preacher points out. I get the impression I'm not alone in experiencing that. So there's a balance to be sought there  certainly.... and though the Spirit leads listeners to their own applications, I find that for me, that process often begins with at least well-illustrated principles from the speaker. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

In my conclusion, I suggest two or three things people ought to take away from the text. The conclusion is rarely more than five minutes long. I want it to be short, punchy, and strong - and clearly tied to the main point of the passage. I don't give any application until the end.

I adopted this method after listening to a Presbyterian pastor's sermons! Here is my conclusion from my sermon on Mk 6:45-56 this past Sunday:

I’ll leave you with two things:

(1) Don’t remake Jesus in your own image, based on your own immediate context – that’s what this crowd did, and that’s why Jesus left so quickly:

  • Jesus isn’t white
  • Jesus isn’t a Republican
  • Jesus isn’t an American
  • Jesus doesn’t watch FoxNews or CNN
  • Jesus didn’t vote for Donald Trump or Barack Obama
  • Jesus is a divine Person, who took on the human nature of a Jewish man
  • Jesus’ political party is His own, and His platform is righteousness, justice and holiness – all defined by God
  • Jesus’ coming kingdom won’t be characterized by the Stars and Stripes, but by His own righteousness

We’re all prisoners of our own culture and context, to some extent – but we need to let Jesus, our great God and Savior, be who He’s actually revealed in Scripture to be – the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God

(2) Live like God is your Savior, because He is:

  • Mark (and God) intended this passage to comfort you by showing you who Jesus is – He’s God! 
  • Moses’ two greatest achievements were that:
    • God used Him to part the Red Sea
    • God used Him to provide for the Israelites in the wilderness.
  • In the feeding of the 5000 and His trek across the lake, walking on the water, Jesus tops both of these:
    • He miraculously provided food for the Israelites in the Galilee wilderness Himself – because He is God
    • He didn’t need to part the waves; He walked on top of them to show His divine status and identity to the disciples
  • When Isaiah cried out, “Behold your God!”, this is who He had in mind!
  • If you’re a Christian:
    • Your Savior is divine, and your Accuser is not
    • Your Savior is all-powerful, and your Accuser is not
    • Your Savior is in complete control of His creation, and your Accuser is not
    • Your Savior knows about and is in control of every single thing you’re worried about at home, with your family, and with your job •
  • If you’re not a Christian,
    • then all this is still true, but Jesus isn’t your Savior, and won’t count you as one of His brothers or sisters unless and until you turn to Him, being sorry for your crimes, and believe in who He is and what He’s done
  • The Jesus who walked across the waves did that so we’d see a very, very small preview of who He is, and the great God and Savior who did that will protect and keep all His children, and work all things for good for those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

To me, a five minute conclusion is quite lengthy. But it has to do with how the message as a whole is structured. Occasionally I attempt a "exposition of the whole text followed by points of application" structure, but for me this is usually awkward. I always feel like I've wasted some good opportunities to explain/illustrate/apply principles earlier in the message... so generally, my structure is more like "exposition of main point 1 -> illustration and application of main pt 1 --> exposition of main point 2 --> illustration & app of main pt 2, --> etc"  with the subpoints in there as appropriate. But I feel like, human nature being what it is, saving all the takeaways for last puts them out when many are now thinking about lunch. Smile

But my main reason for the "mix the applications in all along" approach is really mostly just how I'm wired. Those points are usually top of mind and I can't wait till the final 1/3 or 1/5 of the message to dig into them.

(Another reason I do this is that the principles/illustrations/applications are usually linked to specific features of the text, so if I save them for later, I feel the need to point those features out again as support later on... and it's repetitive--not that repetitive is always bad, but it's not always good either)

The result is that when I get to the actual conclusion, it's really just a bookend... usually a couple of sentences.

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