The Basics of Expository Preaching
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

The Basics of Expository Preaching

Nehemiah 7:73–8:9  (ID: 2225)

Expository preaching begins with a particular portion of Scripture—but it doesn’t end there. Alistair Begg explains that an expositor’s job goes beyond accurate exegesis of a text; it also includes listening for the “melodic line” that runs throughout the entire Bible and helping listeners understand why a passage matters to them. Pastors must commit to preaching what the Bible says without bias, allowing Scripture to establish the framework and content of every sermon.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 3

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23003

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 4

Exposition and Evangelism Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28404

Encore 2019

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25910

Sermon Transcript: Print

Nehemiah chapter 8, and we’ll read the opening verses:

“When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

“So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, [the] women and others who could understand.”

It’s an interesting little phrase, that, isn’t it? “And the others who could understand.” I think it’s a guide to us, in terms of the way we structure our worship, and learn how to banish the squawking children from our midst, and encourage our young parents to understand the same: that the benefit to them of this fledgling monster that they have on their lap is not gonna be peculiarly beneficial, neither to them or to the other members of the congregation.

And you get into all kinds of difficulties with Jesus; you know, “You’re like the big bad disciples that sent the children away,” and all that kind of stuff.[1] But I’ve long since decided I’m quite happy to be a big bad disciple in that respect, because I think that the whole point is that the nurturing of these children at their mother’s breast and at the tutelage of their parents is a unique prerogative within the home. And there comes a time when they do understand; for some it will be sooner than others. But for the tiny infants, they don’t understand a thing, and the benefit to them is small. You couldn’t build a doctrine from here, in Nehemiah 8—at least, I couldn’t. We could make an attempt at it. But it is interesting, I think, that it identifies, you know—it’s not a mention of Labrador dogs or something, but it was all “who could understand.”

“And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

“[And] Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood” this group of individuals.

And then “Ezra opened the book. [And] all the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. [And] Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! [and] Amen!’ [And] they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

And “The Levites,” whose names are there, “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. [And] they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

“[And] Nehemiah the governor, [and] Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”

Well, we thank God for his Word.

Some of us can immediately identify with that final sentence there in verse 10, “All the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law,” because our people are routinely weeping as they listen to us make an attempt at understanding the Bible and conveying it.

What I want to do in the time that we have this morning, which is now until our coffee break at ten, is return with you to some of the practical things in relationship to preaching. But before I do, I want to get one matter out of hand, one practical issue. That is that I discovered last evening something that was severely missing from my notes in relationship to Lloyd-Jones and his ministry. One of my colleagues came to me afterwards and said that he really felt that he had the key to the nature of Lloyd-Jones’s powerful preaching, and that I hadn’t actually fastened onto it at all. And so I thanked him for the encouragement, and I said, “Well, what was it?”

And what I have for you here is a recipe from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s wife Bethan, who apparently made a very striking rock cake, and with eight ounces of flour and four ounces of butter or soft margarine and granulated sugar. And apparently, Lloyd-Jones would eat seven of these before he preached. And somehow or another, I think this must be the key. So, I’m just going to give you a copy of the rock cake recipe, and—hey, guys, we might as well try it, you know, because some of us are struggling as it is, so, there you are. Take that home, and your wife’s… This is the Mrs. Jones rock cake recipe. This is not fictitious. We didn’t contrive this. This is the real McCoy, as they say. And you ought not to treat it lightly. So there you go.

Now, to talk about preaching—and that’s what I want to do in this forty-five minutes—is to enter in where angels fear to tread, in many ways. I want to acknowledge the wisdom of John Wilmer, who was the Earl of Rochester in the seventeenth century in England, who said, “Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children, and no theories.” And those of us who have preached for any length of time, I think, can identify with that when it comes to the matter of preaching. The more we go from Sunday to Sunday, the less we feel we know. And certainly, there is no harder place to be than this place this morning, when, in the company of my peers, I have to, as it were, acknowledge before you my own peculiar challenges in relationship to these things.

Let me begin by just saying a number of things concerning the task of preaching itself, and expository preaching in particular.

I think that one of the reasons for the disinterest in expository preaching—and we alluded to this last evening when I was talking about young seminarians coming out of their studies and not actually doing the hard work of getting down to the text of Scripture—one of the reasons for disinterest on the part of those who would have the responsibility, as well as on the part of those who would listen, is surely and sadly that so many attempts at it prove to be so horribly lifeless, and dull, and, in many cases, thoroughly boring. In other words, there is, in many senses, a legitimate ground as to why it is that people say, “I don’t like preaching,” because so much of the preaching is poor. And we have to acknowledge that we are the preachers. And therefore, if the cap fits, we must wear it.

Surely, we amaze ourselves by our ingenuity when we’re able to take the text of Scripture, which is life-changing, which is “sharper than [a] twoedged sword,”[2] and communicate it in such as ineffectual fashion—to do so with all the kind of passion that you would expect from somebody reading aloud from the Yellow Pages. And our congregations sit and say, “Well, if that is as much as he is energized by it, then it’s small surprise that I find myself sitting here, wishing there were a window out of which I’d be able to look.”

Now, Calvin, in contrast to that, said that in preaching, God “deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them.”[3] “Whenever God is pleased to bless their labour, he makes their doctrine efficacious by the power of his Spirit; and the voice which is in itself mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.”[4]

“And the voice which is itself mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.” That, of course, establishes the immeasurable significance of the preacher’s task. And it does, at the same time, provide an antidote to any potential for pride. Because the expositor is God’s servant, submitting to and proclaiming God’s Word.

Again, Calvin—and I’m not going to quote him a lot this morning, but perhaps this is my only other time—Calvin, in his commentary on Ephesians, says,

It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher …. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it ….

… [God] calls us to him as if he had his mouth open and we saw him there in person.
Expository preaching, quite simply, is preaching which begins with the text of Scripture.

I think you’d have to say that the average member of our congregations doesn’t come to the preaching of the Word of God with that kind of picture in mind. Rather, they come to sit back and relax and enjoy the show, and give points for length, points for humor, points for structure—essentially, just to give points. And then, on their way home, and they will adjudicate over lunchtime as to how well we scored on the unwritten list that they keep in the back of their minds. So we really need to pray desperately hard that God will break into our congregations, to the extent that that may be the case, and that God will show himself so strong by his Word, by his Spirit, that it will become apparent to ourselves and to our people that what is taking place here is something of a supernatural origin, and it is that which has a supernatural impact. But we’re gonna have to labor hard if we’re going to get to this position.

What Is Expository Preaching?

What is expository preaching? Where does expository preaching begin? What would make a man an expositor? Well, first of all, expository preaching, quite simply, is preaching which begins with the text of Scripture. That’s so obvious that it hardly needs to be said. And yet, I think it does need to be said. It doesn’t mean that every sermon that we preach begins with the phrase “Please turn in your Bible to such and such a passage,” although that is a very good discipline for us. It’s a discipline for us as preachers, to remind ourselves that what we’re going to do needs to begin with the text. So, to the extent that it is helpful to you, I would be quite happy to have 90 percent of my sermons begin in that way.

But whether we begin by saying, “My text is this,” or “The passage is this,” or “Please turn in the Bible to this,” it does mean that whatever our point of departure for the beginning of our message—whether it is a current event, whether it is the lyric of a song, whether it is some contemporary issue that is before the congregation—it immediately is clear to our people that it is the text of Scripture which is establishing the agenda of the sermon. It is the text of Scripture which is establishing the agenda of the sermon. It is not that the expositor starts with a great idea or a wonderful illustration and then begins to search for an appropriate passage, but rather that they start with Scripture itself, and that the Scripture itself—the verses under consideration—establish for us and frame the content of what we are conveying. That’s why John Stott says, “It is [our] conviction that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching.”[6]

And I think we’re immediately on the wrong track—and this happens in seminaries all the time here in the States, because they teach it in this way—we’re on the wrong track when we think of expository preaching as a preaching “style” which you can choose from a list: “Topical, devotional, evangelistic, textual, apologetic, prophetic, expository. Choose one from the above, and make it your style.” I would argue, not at all—that expositional preaching needs to be the standard of preaching, whether our emphasis is devotional, or whatever else it may be, so that we are always anchored, with our people, to seeing the text of Scripture establishing both the framework and the content of what is being said. “Expository preaching is not a matter of style at all. In fact, the determinative step which decides whether a sermon is going to be expository or not takes place … before a single word has been actually written or spoken. First and foremost, the adjective ‘expository’ describes the method by which the preacher decides what to say, not how to say it.”[7]

That’s a very interesting distinction. But when we grasp that, then we realize that expository preaching is not, then, simply a running commentary on a passage of Scripture. But that’s in the minds of many people: “Well, that’s the reason I don’t do expository preaching. I know what expository preaching is; it’s just a running commentary. You say, ‘Now we’re at verse 11, and this is what verse 11 says. Now look at verse 12. Now we go to verse 13.’” And that has been held up as a standard model of expository preaching.

You will not find that as the standard of expository preaching in the UK, although you may find it here in the United States. Now, we’re not going to get into intercontinental wars over the issue, but I’m just saying that if you listen, for example, to a variety of preachers, and many from the UK, you will find that their approach to exposition has a far more comprehensive line to it than what has really been presented from a variety of schools—what I would call just a sort of “Bible study method” that can really be done by just about anybody who can read English and who can turn to any kind of textual commentary. And so, anybody can do that kind of thing; they can say, “I was studying this week, and I found out this about verse 11. And I continued my studies, and I found out this about verse 12. And if you look now at verse 13, I found out this about verse 13.” Well, is that exposition? Well, you say, “Well, no, it’s not that. It’s just when the guy gets a little louder in his voice, you see.” No, that’s not exposition. “Or a little more passionate!” No. It remains what it is.

And the distinction in the minds of people, and the kind of questions that you get at seminaries and in conferences like this about what is actually happening in exposition… And I say to you again that a certain model has been held up here, and that is the model, and any deviation from that is something other than exposition. But if you go to the preaching of Stott, if you go to the preaching of Eric Alexander, if you go to the preaching of Sinclair Ferguson, if you go to the preaching of Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, you are not going to find that thing. Now, the question is, Are these men engaging in exposition?

You see, exposition begins with the text of Scripture. It begins by our determining what is going to happen here in this. It is not a style. It’s possible to preach exegetically without preaching expositionally. Because exposition must inevitably answer the “So what?” question in the listener’s mind. It is expositionary preaching which is encouraging the listener to understand why a first-century letter to a church in Corinth is relevant to a twenty-first-century congregation living in Cleveland. Because exposition, then, is not going to leave the listener mystified at the way in which the preacher was dealing with the text. But exposition is going to fuse the horizons of the world in which the individual is living with the world out of which the Scriptures are coming.

Two Dangers of Expository Preaching

And when we engage in this, then we, of course, face two particular dangers.

The assumption that the message is irrelevant on the part of our listeners. The people are sitting out there, saying, “This is irrelevant! This is a religious man giving a religious talk. I am a twenty-first-century man, I’ve been dragged in here, and frankly, I don’t have much interest in this at all. Whatever he has to say, however steamed up he is about it, it’s pretty well irrelevant.” And therefore, as preachers, we have to work hard to ensure that we’re not simply doing good exegesis—helping the listener to understand the meaning of the text—but that we’re also laboring to establish its relevance to the listener’s personal world.

So, for example, we may teach on the doctrine of the incarnation, and we mustn’t content ourselves simply by ensuring that the listeners have grasped the instruction. We will at least have to point out the implications of the great principle of incarnational mission, thereby establishing the link, so allows the preacher to say something along the lines of, “The ministry of Jesus was one of involvement, not detachment, and therefore we must face the fact that we cannot minister to a lost world if we’re not in it.” You see, we can deal with the incarnation as just a doctrine, over here, that God appeared. And we’ve been faithful to the didactic material!

Of course, the twin danger is that people are sitting out, listening to us, believing that the message is immediately relevant. And they’re sitting out there wanting us to move immediately to application. They want to know what this “means to them.” And the pressure that can grip a preacher in relationship to that is the pressure which rushes us to personalize the text—to be very, very quick to say to people, “You know, I know that you think that this is irrelevant, but let me show you how relevant it really is,” and in seeking to get to relevance to overcome the possibility of irrelevance, we actually render ourselves totally irrelevant, because we fail to do the kind of exegesis that is necessary to show them why it is relevant. In other words, before they begin to say what this means to me, we have to say to them what this means.

Now, one of Dick Lucas’s wonderful statements—he’s talking about evangelistic preaching—he says to the people, “Yes, we do need to tell people that Jesus will come into their hearts. But we first of all need to tell them that Jesus Christ came to die for their sins.” We’re so concerned to tell you about Jesus coming into your heart today that we miss the whole foundation upon which it is built.

Lessons from Lucas

Now, there are a number of things that I think will help us in relationship to engaging in this task. And for those of you who would like to have more of this material, you can get it in the little booklet that I did when I tried to understand the nature of the task for myself.[8] It’s not particularly good, but it’s at least a start.

Now, what I want to do is move into dreadfully dangerous territory, which I did once, on the last occasion, and said I’d never do it again, but I may as well. And this allows me to just show my multifaceted talents, not least of all with art. And I can hardly wait to help you to see these things. But anyway…

Let me first of all acknowledge something that I’ve done before, and I want to do it again. And that is that 1984… I came here in 1983. I’d been for two years an assistant in Edinburgh, for six years in a church of my own. I had gone to the church on my own; I began in the book of Philippians, with verse 1, and I kept going to the end. It’s a fairly arduous journey, but I knew that it only had four chapters and thought that I would be hard-pressed to kill the congregation with four chapters, and also that I’d read somewhere that it was the “epistle of joy,” and so maybe they would be quite joyful as I did it. And that became the pattern for how I did things.

When I came here to the States in ’83 and was given the responsibilities in this congregation, I was delighted to discover that this gentleman Dick Lucas was about to appear in Charlottesville, Virginia, and that he was going to give a conference, which I think was entitled “Speaking by Listening.” And so I said to my elders that I’d like to go to this conference, and they very quickly shipped me off. They said, “Do you think it’ll help you to preach?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Well, then go immediately, and stay for as long as you like.”

Exposition fuses the horizons of the world in which the individual is living with the world out of which the Scriptures are coming.

And those two days were the most instructive, helpful, beneficial days, in terms of just getting to grips with opening up my eyes to the immensity of teaching the Bible and the wonder of what it is, that I’ve never had two days better than those two days in Charlottesville since. And I’ve actually never really moved away from the lessons that I tried to discover there and learn. Some of the lessons that I mentioned to those of you who were here last time, I come back to them with you without any apology whatsoever. Because the refresher element of things is so important. When the pilot goes to the simulator down in Atlanta, or wherever else it is, they don’t teach him, you know, how to do kamikaze, you know, dive-bombing approaches to Chicago O’Hare. If he wants to do that on his own time, that’s up to him. But what they’re seeking to do is say, “Now, we want to make sure that you can make this approach into National Airport in DC. We want to make sure that you can do it under these conditions, and under these conditions, and under these conditions.” And they simply go back down the same road again and again and again. And I find myself having to go back to this again and again and again.

And so, these lessons are essentially what we might refer to as “Lessons from Lucas.” And this gentleman—who is over on the other side of the pond at the moment and always says that he’s too old ever to come back—I hope we can get him back next year and actually have him at our conference, so that you could have the real thing for at least a couple of sessions. And then you would realize why I’m so intrigued by him.

But what I want to do is acknowledge some of these things and just work through a couple of them with you in the time that we have. And I’m going to bounce around, and hopefully the benefit of this will be when we come back to it in our next session, when we can talk, perhaps, about these things.

Speaking by Listening

Mark chapter 7 is often where he begins, and I want just to turn you there for a moment. Mark 7:35. It’s the story of the healing of a deaf and mute man. You remember it. Jesus “[takes the man] aside, away from the crowd” in verse 33, he “put his fingers into the man’s ears … he [spat] and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven … with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’). [And] at this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.”

And, of course, this is an actual healing miracle that took place. On that occasion when I went down there, Dick said it is also something of a paradigm and a parable for all who would become preachers of the Bible. Because until our ears are opened and we learn to listen to what the text of Scripture is actually saying, we are a danger to ourselves and others when we begin to speak. And he said, “One of the reasons that we are so ineffectual in our speaking is because we’re so poor in our listening.”

National Public Radio this morning, as I was driving here, had an amazing statistic. It said that in their analysis—and I don’t know quite how they do these things—but it said in their analysis of the United States of America, they have found that 50 percent of the population never read anything. Nothing! Neither a magazine nor a newspaper, and certainly not a book.

Somebody was telling me about a pastor, the other day, who is in a very, very large church here in America. He said that his preaching had begun to go south—not that he was becoming a heretic, but it just was no good. And in seeking for an explanation, somebody said, essentially, “He’s just stopped listening.” He’s just stopped listening. He’s not listening to what Jesus has to say in the Bible. Unless we learn to listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us in the text of Scripture, then it really is quite obnoxious of us to think that we can stand up with loosened tongues and begin to speak plainly to people.

So, the task of the expositor is to be speaking by listening. And in doing so, we’re bringing the Bible to bear upon our congregation. We’re bringing the text before them in such a way that they are confronted by it, and that they realize that this Bible is important and it’s worthy of consideration.

And that, some of you will remember from last time, allowed me to share Dick’s wonderful artwork with the large F and the small T. And you may remember this, some who were here; those of you who were not will just marvel, as they did last year, at the wonder of this artwork and its implications. Sometimes I use two colors, but this morning I’ll just use the one. And F simply stands for framework. Framework. And T stands for text. All of us have frameworks. It’s inevitable. There is a way of thinking about things. We all think about things. We have systematic structures, and we have influences and frameworks from all kinds of places. And we are thankful for those.

But if the framework so predominates our thinking, then what will happen is that the framework will dominate the text of Scripture. And indeed, when we don’t really know what we’re doing with the text of Scripture, our congregations will find that we’re always reverting to our framework. So, for example, if, you know, your big thing is—your view of the world is—that there’s far too much rock music, and the answer to banishing that is the return of Jesus Christ in power and great glory, then the fact of the matter is, no matter what passage you’re preaching from, you will almost inevitably find yourself saying, “And that’s the problem with the rock music, as I mentioned last week. And, of course, the answer to that, as I told you for the last fifty-one Sundays, is this wonderful, glorious return of Jesus in glory.” And so the people are going out saying, “He’s very concerned about rock music and the return of Jesus in glory.” “Yes, but what about the fact that he was actually studying Mark chapter 7?” “Well, that’s by the way. That’s by the way.” He’s not an expositor; he just launches off into oblivion.

Now, there are peculiar dangers to it. Campbell Morgan tells a wonderful story—and I’ve told you it before—of the guy who was a Baptist with a big B, and, you know, he couldn’t get away from the fact of baptism. And so, he was preaching one Sunday morning from Genesis on “Adam, where art thou?”[9] And I can’t even find it in my notes anymore, but essentially, his points were: number one, “Where Adam was”; number two, “How Adam got there”; number three, “How God was seeking him”; and number four, “A few words on the subject of baptism.”

But actually, the more damaging aspect of it is—especially when the framework emerges from systematics—if we allow a framework to so dominate our approach to the Bible, we will tend to preach what I would refer to as “propositional paraphrase sermons.” And it will become possible for us to preach, essentially, the same sermon from any place in the Bible. And what happens is that the text of Scripture is not engaged with by the preacher—therefore, not by the congregation. There’s very little sensitivity to the literary genre of the material—whether it is apocalyptic, or whether it is poetic; whether it is narrative, or whether it is parable. All of these elements, which are crucial elements, then become flattened out to the prosaic level of a theology textbook. And then no attempt is made to give any credence, or to do any justice, to the lyrical, or to the dramatic, or to the ironic elements of the text.

And if, gentlemen, we find ourselves essentially just preaching the same way—whether we’re preaching through the narratives of the Acts; whether we’re preaching through the studies in an Old Testament character like Joseph; whether we’re coming, for example, to the Thirteenth Psalm, “How long will you forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will I have sorrow in my heart? Every day? How long am I in this dreadful mess?”[10]—if we find that we’re able to move through all of these genres, and our sermons just come out the exact same way because of the framework from which we’re coming and which we bring to it, then we’re doing a disservice to the text, and we’re doing a huge disservice to the members of our congregation.

Part of it has to do with observation. Observation. Looking at the text in a way that helps us to understand that we don’t understand. The greatest danger we face is believing that we understand before we do. Whoever our favorite commentators are—whether it’s Warren Wiersbe for a quick Wednesday evening Bible study, or whether it is the MacArthur Commentary Series, with all of the wealth of that exegesis, or whatever it might be—if we go immediately there, or if we have imbibed that kind of material, then the chances are that we will never be free enough to look at the text of Scripture and say, “What’s here?” And the trouble is that when we come to it saying, “We know what’s here,” there’s very little excitement in it for ourselves. There’s very little discovery in it for ourselves. And so our congregation feel none of the excitement and none of the discovery. How could there? There hasn’t been any! We’re simply trotting it out—trotting it out.

So, for example, let’s just illustrate this from Acts chapter 10. Again, this is one of Dick’s favorites. He’s got a few of these, all through the Bible. But Acts chapter 10—I don’t know how he finds them all—verse 42.

And this is Peter at Cornelius’s house, and he’s speaking. Verse 41: “[Jesus] was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” This is akin to what we were seeing yesterday—2 Peter, again: “We are eyewitnesses of these things.”[11] Now note verse 42: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Now, we want to have a good look at this. Notice how the emphasis is on the “he” and the “him,” first of all: “He commanded us.” That “he is the one,” and “all the prophets testify about him.” That “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness … in his name.” So, first of all, this is very Christocentric. Peter is talking here about Jesus. It’s the “he, he, he, him, him him,” as opposed to the “me, me, me,” and the “my, my, my,” and “my little insight,” and so on. No, so clearly Peter is saying, “Now, what we have here is Jesus.”

But the remarkable thing is this: that “he commanded us to preach to the people.” Why do you preach? “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify”—notice—“that he is the one whom God appointed as judge.” Wow! He gave to the apostles a message of judgment! Look at it! We might even miss that! Unless we’re looking.

And when we think in terms of the way in which we speak evangelistically—and I can almost hear Dick saying this now. He said, “You know, if you say to the average young people now, ‘We’d like you to come along this evening, and we’re gonna have a wonderful time, and we’d like you to come and meet Jesus. Only if you’d like to, of course! If you’d like to meet Jesus, we’ll be making Jesus known, and there’s a possibility that you may actually meet him. Show up if you’d like, and we’ll be glad to talk with you.’”

Until our ears are opened and we learn to listen to what the text of Scripture is actually saying, we are a danger to ourselves and others when we begin to speak.

That’s not what the message was that was given to the apostles. The message was not an appeal to come and meet Jesus. The message was a statement of fact: “Thank you for coming out this evening. We want you to know that you’re going to be meeting Jesus. You’re going to meet Jesus. There’s no question about this, young people. You’re going to meet Jesus. He has actually entrusted us with a message for you, which is that he is going to judge; he will separate the sheep from the goats.[12] You’re going to meet him. And the good news is that he has sent us to tell you that you may meet him now as your Savior rather than face him one day as your Judge.”

Now, you see, observation of what is happening here in the apostolic pattern then corrects faulty exegesis and faulty application. And one of the reasons for the absence of authority in so much of our preaching is that we begin from this kind of soft position.

Getting the Melodic Line

Following on from that, go to Romans chapter 1. And this is something that, again, was a tremendous help to me, and I hope it is to you in this word of reminder, now. It’s what Dick would refer to as “getting the melodic line”—getting the melodic line. For example, we have a piano over here, and you can—I don’t even know if it’s open. Yes, it is. But we could have somebody come and go. [Piano notes played]

Person said, “Well, thank you very much for that. What was that?”

“Well, it was some notes from a very wonderful hymn.”

“I see. Well, thank you for sharing them. It hasn’t really made much of an impact on me at all. I’m not just sure how it all fits.”

“Well, actually it goes…”

So here we are, and we’re in Luke’s Gospel, and we’re in chapter 14, and we come to verse 6, or whatever else it is. We say, “This is verse 6, and I’d like to talk to you about verse 6. This is an F, and I’d like to play it for you. This is a B-flat, and I’d like to play it for you.” We can do that. And our congregations go through our studies; they’ve got no concept at all of how anything fits together or why God has put it together in that way. Oh, we’re being very faithful in explaining what verse 6 means. But the chances are that we ourselves are in danger of missing the whole melodic line by not standing back far enough from the text to discover what it is that is taking place here.

For example, Romans. What is the book of Romans about? “Romans is a compendium of theology.” That’s what everybody says, isn’t it? “Romans is the great theological treatise of Paul”—that Paul wrote Romans to establish theology, the doctrine of justification by faith. Well, of course, it is that. But is that what it is? Romans 1:16: “I[’m] not ashamed of the gospel”? You say, “That’s it! Now you’re on it, Alistair! That’s right: it’s about the gospel. Romans is about the gospel. You’ve gone to the right verse.” Why? “Because it is the power of God for … salvation [for] everyone who believes: first for the Jew, [and] then for the Gentile.”[13]

Go the end of the book. Romans 16:26: “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings [and] by the command of the eternal God”—notice—“so that all nations [may] believe and obey him.” That’s what the book of Romans is about! It’s about the universal appeal of the gospel. That’s the significance of 9, 10, and 11—that both Jew and Gentile are now gathered up under the sovereign plan of God. But we can go through Romans—and give material on justification, and be right; and on sanctification, and work through 6, 7, and 8; explain the place of the Jews, and everything else; get all the way through the sixteen chapters—and our people never, ever realize that what you have in the book of Romans is Paul’s apologia for world evangelization. That’s the melodic line! Starts in 1:16 and finishes in 16:26.

But you see, if we don’t stand back far enough—if we don’t connect the notes—then it becomes a disjointed thing.

You get the same thing, incidentally, in 2 Peter, as we began there last evening, if you turn there for just a moment. What’s the significance of 2 Peter? Well, there’s a lot of heresy going around, there’s a lot of problems, and so on. The false preachers and teachers are kicking around, and they need to be addressed. Of course they do! And how does Peter address them? Well, he says, “I want you to grow in godliness.” The opening part of the book, doesn’t he? He says, “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and for godliness. Therefore, be godly.”[14] You get to the end of the book in 3:17: “Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.” Notice: “But grow in … grace and [in the] knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

What is the answer to the confusion and the disruption of the false teachers? The holiness of the people of God—that they would “grow in …grace and [in a] knowledge of [the] Lord Jesus.” That way, they will have stability when all of these crazy people come around with their nonsense, and that way, they will go onto maturity, and it will be their maturity which allows them to withstand all the attacks of the Evil One. But again, we can go through 2 Peter, verse by verse and bit by bit, and never actually stand back far enough to say, “Now, what is the melodic line that runs all the way through this?”

1 Corinthians 15. What is that? “Well, it’s a great chapter on the resurrection.” Why doesn’t it stop with verse 57? Why do you think verse 58 is there, in 1 Corinthians 15? If it’s a chapter on the resurrection? Well, it is a chapter on the resurrection; he talks so clearly about it, there’s so much wonderful instruction. But it doesn’t finish with 57: “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my friends, go out and have a wonderful day, and sing to yourself as you’re driving home in the car, ‘On the victory side, on the victory side.’”[15] No! He’s going to verse 58: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.” What was the challenge that was facing first-century Corinth? That they were becoming unmoored from their foundations. That he had to write to them and say, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[16] That he had to write to them and say, “The resurrected Christ reigns.” Why? Because they faced the potential of becoming shaky and overturned and disrupted. And so he says, “Therefore, stand firm. Do the work to which God has called you.”[17]

Now, we could go all the way through the place. I mean, you take, for example, Hebrews 13:8. If ever there’s a text that we need to be very, very careful of, it’s Hebrews 13:8. And many of us have preached it, and we’ve come away with a sour taste in our mouths when we finish, because we said, “I know that that said a lot of important things, but I’m not sure we really dealt with the text.”

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday … today and forever.”[18] “Good morning, my text is ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever.’ I want you to know that although you’re in the twenty-first century, Jesus is the same. There were people in the first century had problems, and you have problems, and Jesus is the same.” The people say, “Well, thank you very much.” But you’ve got to find out why verse 8’s in between verse 7 and verse 9, before you preach verse 8: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” and “[Don’t] be carried away by all [the] kinds of strange teachings.”

What is the emphasis of the book of Hebrews? It’s on the finished work of Christ. It’s on the sufficient word of God. And any exegesis of Hebrews 13:8 that doesn’t bring us to understand that the whole point of Hebrews 13:8 is in emphasizing the fact that Jesus is the same in his finished work and in his final word… “Don’t be carried away by all these kinds of strange teachings, because Jesus has completed it. He has seated himself.” So any explanation of Hebrews 13:8 that doesn’t deal with the high priestly work of Christ may be a good devotional sermon; we’re not going to convey untruths to our people. But we probably missed the point. It’s so easy to do.

Let me give you just one final one, and I want to say one other thing, and then I’ll wrap this. But in Luke chapter 13, I found myself almost trapped in relationship to these things. We’re going through Luke at the moment. And we came to Luke 13:10. We have another of these stories of Jesus on the Sabbath day, teaching in the synagogues, and there’s a lady there who’s been crippled for eighteen years; she’s bent over, and she can’t straighten up. You remember the story, I’m sure. And I studied that; we’d got to verse 9, and so we were picking up at 10. And so I just looked at my NIV, and I said, “Oh, well, there’s a sermon here about the whole Sabbath thing again, and healing on the Sabbath, then I’ve got a sermon on the mustard seed and the yeast, then I got one on the narrow door, then I got one on Jesus’ sorrow for Jerusalem.”

Look out, be careful! Remember, these divisions are implanted, you know. These are not divine. And the more I studied through the week, I couldn’t figure out how you get from the healing of the woman on the Sabbath to Jesus asking the question, “What is the kingdom of God like?” Because after all, what you’ve really got in Luke is a great unfolding of the Luke 4 passage, isn’t it? “Today these things are fulfilled in your hearing. ‘He has sent me to preach good news to the poor and delivery of sight to the blind,’”[19] and so on. “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing. What is the kingdom of God like?”

Jesus is about the business of taking people who are bent over and straightening them up so that they might praise God.

And so, I suddenly realized that if I was to disengage these two little parables from the incident that Luke gives us here in the healing of this woman, I could still do stuff about the parables that would be okay, and I could still deal with the text on the healing of the woman—that would be okay—but I think that I would have missed the whole point: that Jesus is speaking to the people, and he comes into the synagogue, and he comes into this teacher’s location in the synagogue, and out of all the people who are there, he picks out this woman who is completely marginalized. She’s a disabled woman who is both noticed and unnoticed. She was on the fringes of society. She certainly wouldn’t have been a key person in the synagogue at all. And all of the people are there, and the teacher comes, and he says, “I’d like you to come out, and I want just to speak to you.” And she was bent over, and she couldn’t straighten up, and Jesus said, “You’re set free from your infirmity,” he puts his hands on her, and immediately she straightens up and praises God. And the stupid Pharisees can only get steamed up about what’s happening on the Sabbath. So they’re humiliated; his disciples are delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

And Jesus said, “Hey, what’s the kingdom of God like? You see, what just happened here, fellas, in the synagogue is what the kingdom of God is like. Today the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. I’m about the business of taking people who are bent over and straightening them up so that they might praise God. I know it doesn’t look particularly dramatic. I know that this lady is not a local tennis star on the circuit. I know that she is not necessarily gonna have a tremendously powerful testimony in many ways. But after all, what is the kingdom of God like? It’s actually like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in the garden. It’s actually like yeast, which is working very silently and quietly and unseen in ways that is not immediately apparent to everyone.” And he’s teaching his disciples.

So, when you and I find ourselves saying, “I don’t think there’s much happening here. You know, I’ve been preaching and teaching for some time, and there’s only old Mrs. So-and-So, she became a Christian. But, you know, who’s old Mrs. So-and-So, you know? She’s been on the fringe of things for years.” What’s the kingdom of God like?

Holding the Line

Well, listen, I just want to give you one other thing, and then we can interact on these things. There’s essentially more where this came from. I mean, we could go through a whole ton of these things, but I don’t want it to become tedious in any way.

We haven’t really addressed the issue of structures and outlines and things when it comes to preaching. And again, that’s another way in which we can, if we’re not careful, find that all of our preaching becomes the exact same, because whatever happens, the text has to be pressed into whatever framework that we determined is the framework that God blesses, you know. And it’s been a great freedom for me, personally, to just throw all that out the window and to just allow the text to constrain it. There may one point, there may be twelve points, there may be three points. You know, the Puritans, who were known for the vast number of points—the fella gets up in his evening service and he said, “Because my sermon this morning had forty-seven points, my sermon this evening will be pointless.” And some of us have got that down pat.

But let me just give you probably my favorite piece of artwork that I inherited from dear Dick. And that’s it right there. I’ll leave it up, in case any of you want to take photographs of it afterwards, because there’s no question that it is impressive.

And that, as you can see, is a line. And the importance of the line being up there is to remind us, in dealing with the text of Scripture, to hold the line—to hold the line, to stay on the line—“the line” being the plain instruction of Scripture itself, preventing us from going above the line and saying more than the Bible says, preventing us from going below the line and saying less than the Bible says. So, below the line we could put, if you like, liberalism, a kind of partisan neo-evangelicalism, church growth pragmatism. That’s all below the line, I think. Above the line, fanaticism, pietism, emotional Pentecostalism, and anything else you’d like to put up there.

We’re supposed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And so, when we have put our material together, we need to be constantly saying, “Is there anything here that needs just to be chopped out and taken away and thrown on the floor, because frankly, I’ve just gone above the line? Or is there some reason why I have determined that this particular verse here, I’m just going to try and leapfrog over it as fast as I can, because after all, old Brother Smith, you know, he’s got a thing about that verse?” And so we just drop down below the line. Or, even worse, because of circumstances in our congregation that have to deal with the very necessity of discipline, we’ve now, unfortunately, in our series of studies come to the question of discipline, and so we decided that we’d better just bob down below the line. Because if we stay on the line, it’s clear to us and to everybody else that we’re going to have to do something with this.

And that, of course, brings us to the question of, Do you want to lead your congregation or do you want to be liked by your congregation? And if we’re driven by a desire for acceptance and for likeability and stuff, then we’ll find that, you know, we’ll be bumping up and down all over the line. But to hold the line is imperative if we’re going to deal with the Scriptures themselves.

Jonathan Fletcher has four questions that he said are important to ask in coming to the text of Scripture, in doing our exposition.[20] And they’re these:

What is the Bible actually saying?

Why is it here?

Why is it saying it in this way? Because, for example, you can find the Bible addressing the same issues in different ways. So, Paul may tackle something in one way, and James may tackle it in another. They’re actually tackling the same issue, so it’s a valid question to say, “Why is the writer tackling it, under the inspiration of the Spirit, in this way?”

And fourthly, What is surprising about it? What is surprising about it? And, I think, perhaps more than any other thing, this is where Dick has been a help to me: in not looking for novel things—I’m not talking about trying to find novelties—but in actually being surprised by the Bible. “This is a surprising thing. This is remarkable.” And that sense of wonder and surprise then fuels our further investigation.

You know, 2 Timothy 2:7 says, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all [of] this.” You know? Think about it! Don’t just start preaching it. Think about it! The absence of reflection in many of our busy lives is a significant absence, similar to the absence of meditation. I think, brethren, under the instruction of the Spirit of God and under the guidance of God, there is tremendous… We’re not talking about esoteric, weird insights. We’re just talking about the kind of reflection that renders us not only students of the Bible but those who are bowing down underneath the Bible.

Someone has facetiously said that in contrast to those four questions, the kind of postmodern questions that are asked and are suggested for students of the Bible are:

Instead of What is it actually saying?, the question is How does it make you feel?

Instead of Why is it here?, What does it remind you of that you’d like to share?

Instead of Why is it saying it in this way?, If you’d been there, what would you have written?

What is surprising about it? is replaced with What would you like to change?[21]

Now, that’s only partially funny, because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there’s many a sermon that emerges from asking the bottom four questions rather than the top four questions. Because when you listen to the preaching, it just sounds like that, doesn’t it? “How does it make you feel? I was reading my Bible this week, and I felt this way.” And so the people think that Christianity is a glandular condition—that the work of the Word first of all affects your glands, it affects your lymphatic system or something, you know? That God is working through your kidneys.

The absence of reflection in many of our busy lives is a significant absence.

“And it reminded me of something that I’d like to share with you this morning. I don’t want to preach to you. I don’t want to unsettle you. I don’t want to speak authoritatively to you. I don’t want to be prophetic in any way. That’s why I don’t have a pulpit, and that’s why I don’t have a Bible, and that’s why I don’t have a tie, and that’s why I just look like such a perfectly ordinary person.” You look like clown, frankly. The businessman’s not impressed by that stupidity. Neither are teenagers. Teenagers say, “Dad, you look like a dork.” The businessman says, “What does he think he’s doing, dressing like that? I mean, I understand about going to work. Doesn’t he understand about going to work? I mean, is pastoral ministry just one big Hawaiian holiday? He gives me the impression that he’s just horribly casual about everything, that it doesn’t really stir him very much at all.”

“And it reminded me of something I’d like to share with you. And you know what? The thing I want you to think about this morning as you leave is this: not so much ‘Did this actually happen?’ Or not exactly ‘Why was it, where it was, and what did it mean?’ But I’d like you to think, as you go away, as you’re driving away in your car, ‘If you’d been there, what do you think you would’ve written down?’”

What kind of stupid question is that? But that’s the question our kids are being asked. They come home and do papers on that. Whether the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of independence, whether it’s really there, whether it was really written by historical characters, is secondary to the question, “What do you think you would’ve written if you’d written the Declaration of Independence?” Totally irrelevant question! It’s postmodernism. “And, you know, as you’re driving home in the car, just think about the passage we read this morning, and see if there’s some things that you would like to change in it. And let me know next week, and I’ll try and work it in later on.”

Father, I do pray that you will make us students of the Bible, that you will help us to benefit greatly from all that we have learned from others, and that you will enable us so to come with expectant hearts and minds to the text of Scripture that we may not come as the authority, but that we may come to the authority; that we may not come to tell the text what it means, but that we may come to the text to discover what it means, so that our people may sense from us this genuine sense of discovery and expectation as the Word of God does your work. So then, help us to hear so that we might speak. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] See Mark 10:14, Matthew 19:13, Luke 18:15.

[2] Hebrews 4:12 (KJV).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 4:16.

[4] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 60.

[5] John Calvin, sermons on 2 Timothy 1:2 and Ephesians 4:11–12, quoted in T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 42.

[6] John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 125.

[7] Roy Clements, Expository Preaching in a Postmodern World (Cambridge: Cambridge Papers, 1998), 11.

[8] Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (1999; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

[9] Genesis 3:9 (paraphrased).

[10] Psalm 13:1–2 (paraphrased).

[11] 2 Peter 1:16 (paraphrased).

[12] See Matthew 25:33.

[13] Romans 1:16 (NIV 1984).

[14] 2 Peter 1:3, 5–7 (paraphrased).

[15] Fanny Crosby, “On the Victory Side” (1894).

[16] 1 Corinthians 2:2 (NIV 1984).

[17] 1 Corinthians 15:58 (paraphrased).

[18] Hebrews 13:8 (NIV 1984).

[19] Luke 4:21, 18 (paraphrased).

[20] Source unknown.

[21] Source unknown.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.