The quest for pulpit relevance in many churches today has led some preachers to experiment with a variety of homiletical approaches. Even a cursory examination of the contemporary homiletical landscape reveals that both pulpit and pew continue to express concern that all too often sermons have no direct connection with everyday life. This unfortunate development has led many preachers to jettison the most effective and relevant approach for letting the Bible speak — expository preaching.
Much of the contemporary reaction to — and criticism of — expository preaching rests upon the faulty premise that this approach fails to address the real needs of people. Consequently, preachers and Bible teachers often begin their sermon preparation with a topic, idea, or subject that they deem relevant to the congregation and then search for a biblical text or texts that might address that particular issue. The danger is that biblical texts often become "pegboards" upon which preachers and teachers hang their ideas, rather than the centerpiece or focal point around which the sermon is built.
An honest assessment of both the Old and New Testaments underscores the primary concern with which the preachers in the Bible approached their task. For them, the clear, consistent proclamation of God's Word was entirely sufficient to address even the most substantive needs of the people to whom they preached. The Bible served as the source, structure, and substance of the sermon. One must look no further than the biblical witness to find a resounding mandate for expository preaching.
The Primacy Of The Word
The word most often used to describe the preacher in the New Testament is translated herald. The very nature of the word speaks of one who is under a divine mandate to proclaim authoritatively a given message (see Rom. 10:14,15). Jesus used the word prior to His ascension as He commissioned His disciples with the primary responsibility of proclaiming the gospel (Mark 16:15). Paul charged Timothy to make the preaching of the Word the focus of his ministry (2 Tim. 4:2). A herald is under divine orders to preach a given message. Clearly, the herald's responsibility is not to invent the message, but to proclaim effectively the message with which he has been entrusted. In other words, preachers are not the chefs who make the meal, they are the waiters who carefully and properly deliver the meal to the table without distorting its content.
The primacy of the Word must not only be recognized by the preacher in the pulpit, it must also be recognized by the people in the pew. Nehemiah 8 provides an enlightening account of how a congregation should respond to the proclamation of God's Word. As Ezra read form the Book of the Law, the Scripture says, all the people stood up (Neh. 8:5). In this early account of expository preaching, the spontaneous reaction of the people clearly suggests that the people recognized the words of Ezra not as the words of men, but as the very Word of God. As Paul commends the Thessalonians, For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe (1 Thess. 2:13).
The Proclamation Of The Word
The heart of expository preaching is the explanation, illustration, and application of biblical texts. In Nehemiah 8 the Levites explained God's Law to the people carefully, illustrated it lucidly, and applied it specifically. The language of the text is clear. The text says they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading (Neh. 8:8).
Three significant principles emerge from this passage.
The first principle relates to the explanation of the biblical text. The word translated distinctly relates to the cogent precision and clarity with which the Levites taught the Word. The unmistakable conclusion is that the Levites were concerned that all people should understand the Word. This is especially paramount considering that even small children had assembled to hear the teaching of the Law (Neh. 8:3). Preachers and teachers would do well to remember that it is impossible for them to explain carefully that which they do not understand. Thus, also implicit within this text is the principle that disciplined study and thorough preparation are necessary corollaries for effective proclamation (see 2 Tim. 2:15; Ezra 7:10).
A second principle that emerges from this passage relates to the effective use of illustrations in preaching. The word translated sense refers to perception or insight. The focus of this word is on meaning. In other words, the Levites not only told the people what the Book of the Law said, they also helped them to understand its meaning. This same principle can also be seen in Jesus' interaction with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24:27 the gospel writer describes how Jesus expounded to them in Scriptures all things concerning Himself. Later that day, as the disciples discussed among themselves the message that Jesus preached, they exclaimed, Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32). The word opened literally means to open thoroughly or to explain the meaning. Hence, Jesus sought not only to explain the biblical message to them, but He also went to great lengths to illustrate or open it so that they might understand its significance for their lives.
A third principle of expository preaching that one can find in Nehemiah 8:8 is that of application. The phrase helped them to understand means to separate mentally or assist in understanding. The emphasis is on application. The clear explanation and illustration of the Law provided the people with a renewed sense of direction for their lives. Nehemiah 8:12 describes the response of the people: And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and to rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them. The apostle Paul also demonstrates the importance of application in preaching. In Acts 17:3 he seeks to demonstrate to the Thessalonians the message of the gospel. The word could be translated "to place alongside." Stated another way, Paul sought to place Scripture alongside the lives of the people in order to show its practical application for their daily living.
The Power Of The Word
What preachers believe about the Bible will be a determining factor in how they preach it. If one concludes that the Bible is trustworthy, authoritative, and dynamic, then obedience to the biblical imperatives demands that the preacher preach as one speaking the very words of God (I Pet. 4:11). To preach with authority is to proclaim the message of the inspired Scriptures. Divine authority issues forth from the message of the Scriptures and not from the thoughts and opinions of the one who preaches. Paul admonished Timothy to saturate his ministry with Scripture and reminded him that an effective ministry would be marked by his devotion to the ministry of the Word (2 Tim. 3:14-17). He further reminded the Ephesians that the Word of God is the foundation upon which the church is built (Eph. 2:19-22). Peter urged the recipients of his epistle to crave the pure milk of the word so that they could grow in their faith (I Pet. 2:2). Jesus proclaimed that His Word would never pass away (Matt. 5:17-20).
The power of an effective pulpit ministry is not determined by the rhetorical ability with which one preaches. Nor is it authenticated by the size of the congregation to which one speaks. The power of an effective ministry is determined by the faithfulness with which one seeks clearly, consistently, and courageously to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). A commitment to expository preaching will not only lead to an effective pulpit ministry, but it will also ensure that the Bible will have the last word.
Reprinted with permission from The Baptist Study Bible, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Mark Howell is the Carl E. Bates Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at Shively Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.