The Nature of Expository Preaching
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The Nature of Expository Preaching

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 2157)

For pastors, expository preaching is not just an optional style that God makes available to them—it is the standard method by which they are to proclaim His Word. The exposition of Scripture prevents the preacher from avoiding difficult passages and makes the biblical text central to the sermon’s framework. Alistair Begg reminds us that preaching grounded in God’s Word ensures that the preacher studies his Bible carefully and that the congregation receives a balanced diet of biblical truth.


Sermon Transcript:

Let’s just go for a moment to Acts chapter 8, shall we? Amazing indication of the providence of God that puts this particular individual in a chariot at just the right time in just the right place to meet with Philip, who was just the right man with just the right news, to be able to respond to just the right question that this chap was asking. It’s amazing how God does this, isn’t it? Acts 8:29:

“The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet.” (It was customary for people always at that time to read out loud, which is the explanation as to why he would have heard him reading. Most of the time, if you’re sitting next to somebody in an airplane, you do not hear them reading—unless it’s your grandmother, and she just does all this … and even then you don’t know what she’s saying, but she just does that mumbling thing, bless her heart.) “And [he] heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet.” And he said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

“‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” And then, of course, he’s reading from this portion of the Old Testament. Then comes the next question, 34: “‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ [And] then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”

I want to just keep that in our minds as we think about this matter of expository preaching. And I want also to remind you of what we read in Nehemiah chapter 8 as the people gather there in the square before the Water Gate. They clearly came expectantly. They gathered in unity. They came and “listened attentively,”[1] we’re told. And as a result of their attentive listening, they learned from the Book of the Law all that God was making clear to them, and the people who were both preaching from the big box and the others who were out amongst them in the crowd were “giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”[2]

I do believe that expository preaching creates a hunger for the Bible—that we breed within our congregation a sense of expectation and a sense of attentive listening. Something happened a little while ago, when Al Mohler came and preached here for us, from Southern Seminary. And I don’t like this—and this is just a personal thing, I know part of it is cultural—but I don’t like this, “And here is Dr. Mohler from Southern Seminary, one of the brightest and the best and the so on and so on, so on. And let’s just give him, you know, a huge big welcome.” And along the fellow comes. And I’d never thought of this before, but I said—as he came to preach, as I introduced him—I said, “I would like you to give him a wonderful Parkside welcome as you take your Bibles.” And then there was just fifteen hundred people turning up their Bibles. And that was the sound that met him as he stood up to preach. Now, there’s… yeah! I mean, if you can’t preach after that, with everybody jumping for their Bibles, you probably shouldn’t be up there at all.

And that sense of attentiveness, a heightened sense of expectation, is inevitably tied to a high view of Scripture. And when you have a congregation that gathers in anticipation of simply a monologue on biblical matters by a kindly fellow speaking with emphasis, then you can be sure that what they expect, they will probably get. But when a congregation gathers with a conviction that when God’s Word is truly preached that God’s voice is really heard, then there’s all the difference in the world. And there’s almost a sense of, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” When you have that kind of congregation, it will draw out from the preacher a desire to be diligent with the Scriptures, and when you have a preacher who is diligent with the Scriptures, it will then in turn create that hunger and interest on the parts of the people.

Calvin expresses this notion well in his commentary in Ephesians. He 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.[3]

Now, that’s from Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians, published by Banner of Truth, 1973, page 42.

Willie Still’s ministry, that some of you will know, in Gilcomston South Church, in Aberdeen—indeed, somebody just spoke to me at the break, said that they were nurtured under Willie’s ministry while a student up in Aberdeen—William Still was known for all manner of things, but most for his commitment to expository preaching. And also for incredibly long prayers. His long prayer on a Sunday morning could last as long as twenty or twenty-five minutes. That was simply his prayer. In that respect, he was akin to Graham Scroggie in Charlotte Chapel in an earlier era, who had done the same thing. And students from the university theological faculty would come and take notes in Graham Scroggie’s prayers. They went on for twenty-five minutes and were a compendium of evangelical theology.

But on one occasion, a visitor to William Still’s church in Aberdeen greeted the minister at the conclusion of the service and said to him, “But Mr. Still, you don’t preach.” William Still asked what he meant, and the man answered, “Well, you just take a passage from the Bible and explain what it means.” Mr. Still replied, “Brother, that is preaching.” You just take a passage from the Bible and explain what it means.

Now, he and others like him were simply following the pattern for expository preaching that is established there in that Nehemiah section by Ezra and his colleagues: godly men reading God’s book, explaining it in such a way that people can understand its implications.

Now, my definitions here of expository preaching will probably be a little broader than some of you have adopted or become familiar with. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that my view is accurate or right, but it is my view.

Beginning with the Text of Scripture

What are the key principles of expository preaching? Well, the first is most obvious, and that is that we begin with the text. Expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture. Well, does that mean, then, that every sermon will begin with the phrase “please turn in your Bible to…,” in terms of the approach that we take? Well, it may, but not necessarily so. We can have people who begin by “please turn in your Bible to…,” and then what follows is anything but expository preaching. So it would be possible to get a very good introduction and then the rest be absolutely haywire.

No, it doesn’t mean that every sermon has to begin with “please turn to Luke chapter 7,” or whatever it is. But it does mean that even when we begin our sermon tangentially—by reference to some current event or even to the lyric of a contemporary song—what it means is that it is the text of Scripture which has established the agenda for the sermon. That’s what I mean by “expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture.” The Bible expositor does not start with an idea or with a great illustration and then go in search of an appropriate passage. Instead, he begins with Scripture itself, and then he allows the verses under consideration to establish both the framework and the content of the sermon.

Expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture.

Now, let me pause there for just a moment and say something that comes to mind as I speak. He allows the verses to establish the framework and the content of the sermon. Some of us in our early days very quickly fall into a trap of having a framework by which we preach which becomes almost the same all the time. And I don’t want to say that it is always wrong to do this. But for myself, I’ve had to push myself away from that over the years to allow the content of the passage not only to establish the content of what is being said but also to force me to establish the framework in which the content is being delivered. So that we allow the passage—and this goes back to something we quoted from Clements the other evening—we allow the genre of the passage to influence us in the way in which we build the scaffolding around the structure that we’re going to leave behind.[4] We’ll say more about that later on when we get to some of the practicalities, but I thought I’d mention it just in passing.

When John Stott refers to this—and he does so so helpfully in his book [Between Two Worlds], which was published by Eerdmans here in the States in ’82—he says, in relationship to this, “It is [our] conviction that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching.”[5] “That all true Christian preaching is expository preaching.”

Now, we’re on the wrong track—and I can tell by some of your eyes that you’re already on the wrong track, and you need to get off it—we’re on the wrong track if we think of expository preaching merely as a preaching style chosen from a list of possible preaching styles—namely, topical, devotional, evangelistic, textual, apologetic, prophetic, or perhaps expository. And a number of us have come through homiletic departments that have offered us these different styles just exactly in that way. And they put them up on the board, they flip them up on the screen, and said, “Here are all the different ways that you can possibly deal with the text of Scripture.” Now, Stott is challenging that, and he’s saying that all Christian preaching that is effective is essentially expository preaching.

Now, what he doesn’t mean by that is that this is a peculiar style of preaching, but that you’ve never really preached unless you have gone to a passage of Scripture and you have unfolded the passage of Scripture. Whether you’re going at it from the topic of temptation, or the topic of money, or whatever else it is, Stott’s conviction would be that it is far better for us to take the question of temptation and expound a section from James chapter 1 than it is to dance all the way around the Bible pulling out references to temptation. He’s saying, “Do it in an expository manner.” So that if you are preaching topically, preach topically in an expositional fashion.

See, that’s immediately a kind of a clash of the neurons or something in people’s heads. They say, “Well, how can you preach topically—expositorily topically?” It makes me think of that section in Hamlet, you know, where the players come, and he says, “What kind of things can you do?” He said, “Well, we can do historical critical, critical-historical, historical-comical, comical-whatever-else-it-is.”[6] You can tell that you don’t care remotely about that. But anyway, it’s a wonderful, it’s actually… Bunch of philistines, never read Hamlet in your life! And it’s really… for the three of you who understand, welcome. And what he’s saying is, “We’re able to combine all these different things. We basically can do what you like.” We’ll develop this further.

In fact, let me quote again from Roy Clements. He helps us here. “Expository preaching,” says Clements,

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, in my view, before a single word has [actually been] 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]

Exposition, then, is not simply a running commentary on a passage of Scripture. Which, if you ask people, you say, “Well, what about biblical exposition?” they say, “Well, biblical exposition is that you start in Acts 9:20, and it says, ‘At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.’ Now, there are two things we learn from this: that he was preaching in the synagogues, and two, that Jesus is the Son of God. Now let’s go to verse 21: ‘All those who heard him were astonished and [said], “Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem?”’ Well, what we find here is that they were really astonished, and they said, ‘Isn’t this the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem?’” People are going, “Excuse me? Why don’t you simply give us a commentary, and we’ll just read this? This is neither preaching nor exposition.”

And yet, this notion that you are not an expositor—and incidentally, the way in which we do stuff at Parkside is the SCEOTS, S-C-E-O-T-S—largely, the Systematic, Consecutive Exposition Of The Scriptures. So at the moment we’re in Luke’s Gospel, and we’re going from verse to verse and through the thing. Okay? So I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re not going to do it in that way. What I’m saying is that I keep meeting young men who think that as long as they’re approximating to something like this, they’re actually involved in exposition. No, they’re not! They’re involved in giving a running commentary on the passage.

Nor is exposition a succession of word studies held loosely together by a few illustrations—for all of the Dallas grads who are convinced that you have to know all of these words and all of the vital bits and pieces and backgrounds, and that’s the key to your whole exposition. It’s very helpful, but it is not the key to your exposition. It’s very helpful, but that’s not it. To be an expositor is not to know the Greek or the Hebrew text and be able to bamboozle people to the fact that analusis—that when Paul says that “the time has come now for my departure,” for “my analusis”—that we know that analusis was used in the Greek context for the unyoking of oxen so that they may go and rest down in the bottom field, that it was used for the weighing of the anchor so that we may go home to our permanent harbor, and that it was used for the striking of the camp so that we may go home to our permanent dwelling. Now, we may impress our people with all of that and give them an insight and so on, but the fact is, what Paul is saying is, “I’m about to die.”

Exposition is not simply a running commentary, nor is it a succession of word studies held together by a few illustrations. We shouldn’t even think of it in terms of the discovery and declaration of a central doctrine found in a passage. We can do all of those things without actually accomplishing biblical exposition, in terms of the definition that I want to build with you. Now, don’t misunderstand me: those things are all important, they’re constituent elements, but none of them in and of themselves necessarily equals exposition. So then, if we’re gonna be involved in biblical exposition, expository preaching always begins with the text of Scripture.

Fusing Text and World

Secondly, expository preaching seeks “to fuse the ‘two horizons’ of the biblical text and the contemporary world.”[8] Fuses the horizons of the biblical text and the contemporary world. It is possible to preach exegetically and yet fail to answer the “So what?” question. All right? And this I want to warn you against. This is the missing element in some of our preaching. We’ve been very, very faithful in doing the word studies, as we should. We’ve been very, very faithful in getting to grips with the passage as it is, and we’ve tried to take our people consecutively through it as best we can. But when we’re all finished, we’ve failed to answer the question that is inherent in their minds, which is, “So what?”

You see, when they called on Ezra to “bring out the Book,”[9] and he preached, they would never have gone and built booths on their rooftops unless he had addressed for them the implications of imbibing God’s truth in their day and generation. The kids would have said, “Dad, why are we going to build these ridiculous things up on our roofs? Do you realize what our friends and neighbors are going to say?” Answer: “Son, we must do this, because weren’t you there when Ezra did his biblical exposition? He didn’t simply tell us what the law of God said, but he told us how the law of God made application to where we’re living in our lives, and we have been neglectful of God and his glory, we’ve been hiding our light under a bushel, and therefore, we need to let everybody know that, by these tabernacles that we’re building, that we unashamedly belong to the Lord.” Now, Ezra could have made an attempt at simply reiterating portions of the Old Testament law and never, ever have sent the people out to build the booths on their roofs.

So it is possible for us to be thoroughly exegetical and yet fail to be expositional. True exposition must have some prophetic dimension that leaves the listener in no doubt that what he has just heard is from the living God and creates in him or in her at least the sneaking suspicion that the Author of this book knows them. That somebody has been reading my mail. That somebody has been reading my mind. That somebody bigger and greater and smarter than the individual who was standing up there this morning has been involved in what was taking place, because there has been an exposition—not only of the Word of God, but my soul has been exposed. And having been exposed both to the Bible and to where I’m living my life, suddenly these things have coalesced. And I have the sense that the Author actually knows me and that he’s chosen to speak to me.

Now, if we’re gonna take the Bible to our people in this way and respond to the challenge of that, then we have to be careful of the sheer slackness that is involved in simply throwing at our people great slabs of religious phraseology. It’d be like a butcher taking big sides of beef and saying, “Hungry, are you? Hey, try that!” you know. “Hey, give that a bite!” you know. “Make something of that if you can.” So that we go in our studies, we don’t fully understand what’s going on, we fiddle around with it a little bit: “Oh, come on. Here … try that! See you later, thank you.” And often we couch it over with a lot of words that end in -a-t-i-o-n, a lot of religious phraseology from a bygone age that we’re not sure we even understand ourselves. And without helping the individuals translate the message into their own experience, we think we can content ourselves with having done a wonderful job and go home and hope that our wives don’t throw our lunch at us in the same way that we just threw all that stuff at the people who were listening to the morning sermon.

It’s the preacher’s task, says John Stott, to open what is closed, to make plain what is obscure, to unravel what is knotted, to unfold what is tightly packed.[10] We cannot simply throw stuff out at our people and think for a moment that that is their responsibility to go home and fiddle around with that. The reason that we have received this calling and received whatever training we have enjoyed is in order that we might do the diligent work of being able to respond to the questions of people like the Ethiopian eunuch who says, when asked, “Do you understand what it is you’re reading?” the person says, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” And if you go amongst the average member of your congregation and the average passage of the Bible that they’re reading, if you go up to them and say to them, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” many of them will be honest enough to say, “How can I really understand this unless someone explains it to me?” And that, of course, is the great privilege of being called to expound the Bible.

Some of us have made in recent years the great rediscovery of the theological works of the Puritans. It’s something for which each of us, I think, are grateful. But there is an inherent danger in it, and that is the proliferation of young men whose pulpit delivery owes more to the seventeenth century than to the twenty-first. And so they found these sermons that had seventy-four points, and they decided, “I’m going to try this out on my people,” and they’re at, say, “Now, thirty-sixthly…” And the people are just, as Hendricks would say, in the third stages of anesthesia, just gazing ahead of them, haven’t a clue what’s going on. The poor pastor’s wife has been holding onto the seat for about twenty-five minutes; her knuckles are absolutely frozen in position. She’s been longing for him to say something that actually related to anybody around her, and it hasn’t happened. The benefit of Puritan writings is not to enable us to speak in seventeenth-century language. The benefit in Puritan writing is probably to remind us of the glory of God and the grandeur of the Scriptures, and then to interpret it for the twenty-first century.

“Well,” you say, “well, the problem is arguably far more significant at the other end of the spectrum,” and I think that’s probably true: where we find sermons that are overly steeped in the issues and interests of the contemporary culture. The people think they’re doing exposition, but they’re not. What they’re doing is they’re seeking to establish contact with the listener very, very quickly, but the connection of what they’re saying with the Bible is so slight that it fails to establish the link between the world and the Bible and the personal world of the listener.

The preacher’s task in exposition is to declare what the Word says, to explain its meaning, to establish the implications, so that no one will mistake its relevance.

So, you see, on the one hand, the danger of an exegesis which makes no contact; and the other, the danger of an approach which seeks to make immediate contact and yet is not grounded in the Scriptures. This individual can think that he’s doing exposition simply because he has a running commentary, simply because he’s reiterating the Puritans, or simply because he’s discovering Christian doctrine or whatever else it is, but he may not be making contact at all. This individual is rejoicing in the fact that he’s made immediate contact, but when the people go out, they say, “What did that have to do with the Bible?” So he hasn’t done biblical exposition. And I feel this most thoroughly when I go for these fill-in-the-blank sermons. And I know that’s partly prejudicial on my part, and some of you do it to great effect. If you’re gonna have fill-in-the-blank sermons, then make sure that what they’re filling in is really biblical content, you know. It’s not a bunch of clichés.

The preacher’s task in exposition is to declare what the Word says, to explain its meaning, to establish the implications, so that no one will mistake its relevance. Whatever we’re doing—whether we’re preaching the Ten Commandments, whether we’re doing a series on the seven deadly sins, whether we’re expounding Isaiah 53—our task in exposition is always the same: to declare what the Bible has said. If we’re going to do that, we need to understand what has been said. We need then to explain the meaning of it and to establish the implications of it so that no one will mistake its relevance. Donald Grey Barnhouse, formerly at Tenth in Philadelphia, described the task as “the art of explaining the text of the Word of God, using all the [experience] of life and learning to illuminate the exposition.”[11] Explaining the text, with our experience of life and study illuminating the exposition.

Encouraging Understanding of Scripture’s Relevance

Third thing I want to say is that not only does expository preaching begin with the text and seek to fuse the two horizons, but expository preaching encourages the listener to understand why a first-century letter to the church in Corinth could ever be relevant to a twenty-first-century congregation living in Cleveland. Expository preaching encourages the listener to understand why it is that some ancient book—I just chose Corinth because it fits with Cleveland—could possibly be relevant to them, since they’re living in Cleveland. And it is vital that the listener does not leave mystified by the way in which the teacher has dealt with the text. Fusing the two horizons is crucial, but he must do so in such a way as his people begin to learn by example how to integrate the Bible with their own experience.

I think again it’s Roy Clements—and some of the stuff that he’s done, tremendously helpful stuff, coming out of England—he talks about the need for not preaching what he calls “mental-arithmetic sermons,”[12] where if you’re good at mental arithmetic—or let’s say your wife is good at mental arithmetic, and you’re in a shop, you just always defer to her: “What is 7 percent of that? What does this cost with the 20 percent off?” and so on. And she deciphers it all for you and tells you the answer. So you’re mindless; you don’t think. “What is it? It is it? Fine, let’s go.” He says there is a great danger, then, for that individual, who, when his wife no longer accompanies him on the shopping trip, he’s completely at sea, because he doesn’t know how to do the mental arithmetic involved to get the right answer. And in the same way, he says, if we teach the Bible to our congregations in such a way that the congregations do not at least have some indication of how we got there, then they will not be learning how to get there themselves. Now, this does not mean that we should leave them with all the scaffolding of our sermon structure, for much of what we build as scaffolding we want to dismantle, because we only want to leave them with the building. But it does mean that we ought to show them enough of the scaffolding to help them when they’re on their own. So that we do not need, if you like, simply to provide meals for our congregation, but in the way in which we do exposition, we should be teaching them how to cook. We should be teaching them how to cook.[13]

And there should be young men growing up in our congregation, they’re saying, “I think I can do that. I think I’m getting that. I think I understand that now. I’ve listened now for seven or eight months, and I see the way he’s doing that. I’d like to have a go at that. I’m gonna seek an opportunity—maybe to speak at an old people’s home or to the youth group or something else. I’m going to try this biblical exposition. I can see how he does it. He just reads a passage of Scripture, he explains the meaning, he unfolds the implications, and then he sets it forward from there. I’m going to have a go at that.”

Now, if the twin dangers for our listeners are these, then we need to pay attention to them. Danger number one: of assuming that our studies in 1 Corinthians, for example, are totally unrelated to them at all. And that’s why you see—because they believe that—they’re trying to go to churches where there are sermons emblazoned across the board that are “Seven Principles for Living with Your Wife,” “Five Ideas for Healthy Financial Background,” how to, you know, have a theological perspective on your checkbook, and all these different things. And people say, “Well, let’s dash off to these places, because this is thoroughly relevant. The fellow over here is simply… he’s got something going with Corinthians. I don’t know where Corinth was. I think I saw it on map sometime. But it’s obviously completely bogus, and it’s irrelevant.”

Now, loved ones, I understand why they would feel that way if when they come to hear our preaching on 1 Corinthians they just walked into the seventeenth century, you know, and we had a whole lot of stuff for them that was totally unrelated; it was full of clichés and shibboleths and a bunch of stuff, in the language of Zion. Don’t do that stuff—especially you Baptists. Don’t be doing that stuff. Don’t be doing all that Baptist stuff, all these phrases. Rid yourself of those phrases. Write them all down and throw them out. Get rid of them! Determine, all this stuff that we pray: “For our dear brother who is lying on one side,” you know, and “who has been laid aside,” you know, and “traveling mercies, journeying mercies.” Just say, “We thank you, Lord, for getting us here safely.” Because the people are going, “What is… I didn’t mean to… I don’t want to mention it, but what are ‘traveling mercies’?” You know?

(So I’m getting myself kind of messed up here, especially with my Baptist colleagues. But I can say it to you because I am you. We’ll leave the Presbyterians for another time. Quiet now. Quiet in the ranks.)

What I was saying was, the danger is that they will regard expositional studies in the book of Corinthians as just totally irrelevant. I’m pausing there to say, “And they may well be right,” which is the danger that we face of making our approach to the teaching of 1 Corinthians so dull, so boring, so unrelated, that our friends are saying, “It is totally irrelevant.” You see? ’Cause what I’m saying is this—if I can stay with my own meager train of thought. What I’m saying is, we are going to drive people into all of those pragmatic environments unless we are able by the enabling of God’s Spirit to show them that exegetical, expositional teaching on 1 Corinthians is the most beneficial, dynamic, live, boldly attractive material that they could ever encounter on the Lord’s Day morning. And we’re not gonna be able to do that in our own strength; we’re gonna need the Lord’s power. We’re not gonna be able to do that simply by reading ancient books; we’re gonna have to do that by thinking clearly, working hard, being diligent, and getting about the business. Falling on our face, picking ourselves up, trying again, changing this, and moving forward, until we begin to get in a flow where it is clear that God is truly honoring his Word as it comes through us.

And we dare not content ourselves by simply saying, “Let them do what they like with it. I gave them six verses; it’s up to them.” No wife would deal with her children in that way. No doctor would deal with his patients in that way, if he was worth his salt. And no pastor must either. We are to be gentle among them, as a mother caring for her children.[14] We are to go to the ones who, clearly, when you give the assignment… and you remember in school when the guy said, “Now, write down here the first three things that come to your mind, having read this poem.” And twenty minutes later, he sees you, and you’re still sitting there, and you have a blank sheet of paper. And the teachers that are worth their salt are the ones that’ll come and kneel down beside you and try and help you along at least to get something on your page. And we need to recognize that with our people. Because some of them assume that the message is irrelevant. And to those who assume that it is irrelevant, all that I’ve just said is vital from the preacher’s side.

I have to work hard to ensure that I’ve not simply done good exegesis but that I have also helped the listener to understand the meaning of its text, that I have labored to establish its relevance to the listener’s personal world. For example, in addressing the doctrine of the incarnation, we’re surely not going to content ourselves with ensuring that our listeners have grasped the instruction: that God became incarnate. But at least part of our application will be to point out the implications of this great principle of incarnational mission. And to establish that link in the minds of our listeners, we might say something along these lines: “The ministry of Jesus was one of involvement, not detachment. And therefore, let me remind you as you go back to your places of employment tomorrow that you cannot minister to a lost world unless you are in it.” Now, of course, we could have told the people that without dealing with the matter of the incarnation. We could have simply said to them, “You know, it’s very important that you’re in the world.” But having exegeted the passage—which had to do, let’s say, with John 17—we have then pointed that out to them, so as to show those who regard it as immediately irrelevant that it is actually very relevant.

The flip side of the concern, though, is that there are individuals who regard the message as immediately relevant. Not irrelevant, but immediately relevant. And this is the kind of listener who wants to move immediately to application. “Don’t waste time,” he says, “on going through it. Just get to the bottom line. Tell me what this means to me.” And these are the people who, in our Bible studies—and incidentally, somebody said, “Do you not believe in Bible studies?” Of course I do. We have lots of them here at the church, and we want to have as many as we possibly can. We just don’t want to have them except in a correlative and supplemental dimension to the preaching of the Bible. They reinforce it in the same way that the scribes or the elders moving around the crowd in Nehemiah chapter 8 were reinforcing the teaching that was given from Ezra as he gave sound of the Word from the large wooden platform.

But these people at the Bible studies, they want immediately to say, “Well, thank you for reading that passage.” You’ve hardly finished reading the passage as the leader, and they say, “What this means to me is…” You say, “Well, with all due respect, why don’t you just go get yourself another cup of coffee and hold that thought—maybe for the rest of your life.” Because we’re not remotely interested in “what it means to you.” Not yet. We may be in a minute. But we are not interested in what it means to me until we have discovered what it means. Because it is only once we know what it means, then we can make any application as to what it might mean to me. Without having established—and this is the role of the pastor and the teacher—without having established the meaning of the text, we daren’t allow our people, or ourselves, immediately to jump off and make application to our circumstances. The rush to personalize the text removed from the necessary understanding of what the passage means in its original context is a real dilemma.

There’s nobody been of more help to me and some of us who are presently here today than Dick Lucas. If you’ve ever been at one of Dick Lucas’s seminars on expositional preaching, you will have shared with me the dreadful experience of having been invited by him to give perhaps just a thumbnail outline of how you would approach a particular passage of Scripture. Maybe he’ll say something like, “Come now, Alistair, and give us a little something on Naaman that you’ve done. Just give us a couple of minutes on that.” And so you stand up and you say, “Well, Naaman. Naaman was, uh… Naaman had a problem, and uh… And the girl, she said, ‘I can fix your problem,’ and, um… so then he tried to get his problem fixed, and then, and…” And he leans forward like this, and he goes, “Come now, dear boy, you know that’s nothing at all to do with the passage. Why don’t you just sit down.” And believe me, you sit down! And he more than anyone else has made me wary of applying the text of 1 Corinthians to Cleveland without first having discovered Paul’s purpose in addressing the congregation in first-century Corinth. And we’ll come back to this in practical terms later on.

But there are all kinds of illustrations of it. I mean, we do it all the time with Romans 8:28, for example. You can preach a glorious message on Romans 8:28 that doesn’t bear any reference to verse 27 or verse 29. And we’ve got some purple passages that we’re able to do that with. Hebrews 13:8 is a classic: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Unearth that from the surrounding context, and you can speak—beneficially, without question; biblically, without question—about the benefits to the believer of a Jesus who is unchanging. But is that the message of Hebrews 13:8? No, it’s actually not. Because when you set it within the control of verses 7 and 9, when you set the thirteenth chapter within the control of the book of Hebrews, then you discover that the wider context of the book establishes the permanent priesthood of Christ, and that unless we explain Hebrews 13:8 in terms of the permanent priesthood of Jesus, then we have actually failed to do service to the instruction of that verse.

But unless we stand back from it far enough to put it in its framework, then all of us will fall right into that trap. And we will send our congregation out singing,

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that he died for me.[15]

“He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He exercises ‘a permanent priesthood.’[16] He has paid for my sins once and for all by his atoning death upon the cross. Therefore, I do not need to back down the street and go back into that congregation and go through all those things again on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the way I have been doing. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever; his priesthood is absolutely permanent.”

Now, you could tell somebody that Jesus lives with them all the time and is kind to them and walks with them and never leaves them or forsakes them, and you can ground that in Hebrews 13:8, but we wouldn’t have expounded the passage. We would neither have understood the meaning of the text, nor conveyed it adequately to the congregation, nor shown them the implications of putting it into practice.

So what we’re saying is that the expositor needs to be under the control of the Bible.

When you read the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, as I’m sure you often do with your Corn Flakes, you will discover that this is actually the third of three principles of faithful exposition that the Westminster Directory lays down. These are the three, actually: One, the matter we preach should be true. Isn’t it amazing they write that down? I’m thankful they wrote it down, aren’t you? So much twaddle. The matter we preach should be true—that is, in light of general doctrines of Scripture. Two, it should be the truth contained in the text or passage we are expounding. It’s like the guy who jumped on his horse and galloped off in all directions. Somebody told me about a preacher, he said his motto was “Read the Bible, close the Bible, and never refer to the Bible again.” The matter we preach should be true, it should be the truth contained in the text or passage, and thirdly—and here’s the reason for mentioning this—it should be the truth preached under the control of the rest of Scripture.[17]

Now, brethren, when we take this seriously, then we will be at least seeking to ensure that our pulpits do not afford a place for theorizing and speculation, or for sloganeering and manipulation, or for tall stories and emotionalism.

In an earlier era in Scotland, when great pains were taken to abide by these principles that I’ve just iterated, the impact was obvious. The knowledge of the Bible possessed by ordinary congregations in earlier generations in Scotland was a significant knowledge. In light of what we quoted last evening from Alexander: he said that the congregations listened attentively, carried their Bible, turned it up. And even for myself, being born in the early ’50s, although I was beyond that time, I still have a vivid recollection of the Bible never being read in my hearing in the gathering of God’s people without either my father or my mother turning to it—and from my very, very earliest years, to see my father’s finger tracing the line across the text as the pastor read the passage of Scripture for the day. Now, was I actually taking it all in? Probably not. I was probably going like this. But he never, ever deviated from it. He still said, “Son, you better look here.”

Now, if he’d never done that, I couldn’t tell you that. And if he’d never done that, I wouldn’t know how important it is. And he was just underscoring the importance of the exposition of the Bible. But you see, we’ll never have the dads in our congregations tracking the text with their fingers unless there is a need for them to track the text with their fingers—because we are committed to working through the Bible in a way that is expositional.

Benefits of Expository Preaching

Are there compelling arguments as to why genuine expository preaching needs to be rediscovered and faithfully practiced in our day? I think so.

Number one—and this is so obvious, because we’ve said it so many times already—it gives glory to God alone. Expository preaching gives glory to God, which ought to be the ultimate end of all we do. I didn’t need to go back over this; we’ve said it already. This kind of preaching is going to be markedly different from one in which sermons constantly find their origin in the felt needs of the people. Constantly finding their origin in the felt needs of the people.

Secondly, it makes the preacher study the Bible. Expository preaching demands that the preacher become a student of the Word of God. I hope none of us are gonna be guilty of putting together a few sermons, and then, once we’ve exhausted them, moving on to some other congregation and blessing them with the pathetic offerings that we just annoyed our previous congregation with. You remember Spurgeon said, “Keep all your old sermons to weep over.” You think your sermons are good? Some evening, when you don’t have much to do, just say to your wife, “Hey, honey, why don’t you sit down for half an hour and let me read you one of my old sermons?” Better still, read it to your three teenage kids.

We’ll never do exposition unless we’ve become students of the Bible. And when we are committed to the systematic and consecutive exposition of the Scripture, then we’ll never come to an end of our task. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing. If we’re stuck, we can be certain that our people are stuck. It is absolutely vital that we come to the Bible with a spirit of discovery; that we come looking for the surprises in the passage; that we come, if you like, agnostic to the text, not immediately assuming that we understand everything just because we’ve spent time in the passage before. That’s one of the great dangers for us.

For example, the other evening I tried to expound 2 Timothy 2, in North Carolina. And I went through 2 Timothy 2:1–6, the metaphors there: the soldier, the athlete, the farmer. And then I came to verse 7, where Paul says, “Reflect on what I[’m] saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all [of] this.” And I think I said, “You’ll notice the little bridge that is here in verse 7. It’s good to reflect on these things—we really don’t reflect on things quite enough these days—and the Lord gives you insight. Now let’s go to verse 8.”

When I was coming back on the plane, I was reading notes from a seminar on preaching that I had attended some years ago, and funnily enough, I found a little a piece on 2 Timothy 2:7. And I had written down on two lines in my notes, “2 Timothy 2:7.” And it said, “Reflect on what I’m saying,” and then underneath it had written, “for the Lord will give you insight into all of this.” And then the individual teaching the seminar had pointed out that “reflect on what I’m saying” is our part; “the Lord will give you insight into all of this” is God’s part. He had then pointed out that it is absolutely essential that both parts are in place. If we fall down in emphasis only on the first part, “reflect on what I’m saying,” then the danger is that we become rationalists. If we fall down on the second part, which is “the Lord will give you insight into all of this,” then the danger is we become fanatics. So he said, “Let’s make sure that we are doing our part, which is to reflect on what the Word is saying, and then let us remember that in all of our reflection, it is God who gives us insight into all of this. And let’s teach our people to do the same.”

And I said to myself, “And I thought that I was expounding 2 Timothy chapter 2—with a passing note of, you know, ‘It’s good for us to reflect.’” You see? What I’m saying is this, what we already know: that if we’ll go back to our Bibles again and again and again on our knees and with our minds open, then the Lord will give us insight into all these things, and that there are fresh discoveries for us to make.

I use a hymnbook a lot in my private devotions, not because I’m good at singing—I’m not, I’m rotten at singing—but I love the hymnody. And so a line or two from the hymn, I want to make my own:

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.[18]

So you want to have that notion in your mind all the time. I know I must. “O teach me, Lord, that I may teach the hidden things thou dost impart.” “The Lord will give him insight into all of this.” “And wing my words, that they may reach the hidden depths of many a heart.”

You see, the first heart that God needs to reach is our heart, right? There is no benefit to our people from expository preaching unless we ourselves are impacted by the Scripture we’re preparing to preach. It is imperative not only that we are dealing with the biblical text but that we are being dealt with by the biblical text, that we are personally being changed by it. John Owen, speaking of this necessity, said,

A man only preaches a sermon well to others if he has first preached it to himself. If he does not thrive on the ‘food’ he prepares, he will not be skilled at making it appetizing for others. If the Word does not dwell in power in us, it will not pass [in] power from us.[19]

Unless it’s making a powerful impact upon us. And what I’m suggesting to you is that expository preaching—the systematic, consecutive exposition of the Scriptures—not only begins with God and his glory, but it also makes us students of the Bible.

It also, thirdly, helps the congregation. It enables the congregation to learn the Bible in the most obvious and natural way, so that our congregations begin to understand that the reason the thing was put down in sentences and paragraphs and so on is so that they might be able to understand it. We wouldn’t expect a university professor to teach from a textbook on human anatomy by picking out parts of sentences at random and using them for his lecture. Rather, we would anticipate that he would work through the material in an orderly fashion so that his students come to an understanding of how all the pieces of the anatomy fit together. I mean, it’s just so obvious, isn’t it?

And really, there are many analogies we can think of. In the realm of sports, the interrelated nature of plays in a game: they’re not isolated from one another. One constituent element has to be shown how it relates to all the others; otherwise, people may be able to call all kinds of plays, but people go off on all kinds of directions. And many men are capable of delivering excellent talks, producing touching illustrations, uttering stirring exhortations, all based on scriptural material, but as expositors of Scripture they’re actually ineffective.

Says Spurgeon to his students, again,

I believe the remark is too well grounded that if you attend to a lecturer on astronomy or geology, during a short course you[’ll] attain a tolerably clear view of his system; but if you listen, not only for twelve months, but for twelve years, to the common run of preachers, you will not arrive at anything like an idea of their system of theology.[20]

You go to the average business gathering, and within a short time you’ll understand where the fellow’s coming from and what he’s on about. But people can sit under the teaching of the Bible, and they’re not really making headway at all. And yet expositional preaching ought to enable our congregations. By my preaching, by your preaching, we either help our people or we hinder our people in the task of interpreting Scripture.

It is imperative not only that we are dealing with the biblical text but that we are being dealt with by the biblical text, that we are personally being changed by it.

The next benefit is, it demands treatment of the entire Bible. Demands treatment of the entire Bible. Expository preaching prevents the preacher from avoiding difficult passages or from dwelling on his favorite texts. Now, this is no small matter. On your computers you have a screen saver, right? Whenever there’s been an absence of activity for any significant length of time, it automatically defaults to one particular image. For mine, it’s a little airplane that goes up and down, goes off the screen, comes back and all around. And anyone coming into my room says, “Well, he hasn’t looked at that in a long while,” and there it flips around. It automatically defaults. In a similar fashion, when we as preachers have not been active in the systematic study of the Bible, we will default to our pet passages to save our faces. We will default to our pet issues, whether it’s Higher Life teaching or an emphasis on the risen life of Christ; some of us default into flights of eschatological fancy that are guaranteed to intrigue but seldom manage to instruct. Whatever the emphasis may be, it will in time become an overemphasis, and the congregation will come to expect only that for which the preacher has become known.

And so, by such a methodology, congregations are denied the opportunity to wrestle, for example, with the mind-stretching, soul-stirring doctrine of election. Others have never examined the issue of spiritual gifts, have never managed to consider controversial subjects like homosexuality, the role of women, or the future of Israel. And if you and I will commit ourselves to exposition of Scripture that is systematic in its pattern, then we won’t allow our congregations to do that. It forces us to deal with the whole Bible.

And the corollary to that is that it provides a balanced diet. Expository preaching assures the congregation of enjoying a balanced diet. This is just the reverse of the previous point. It is exposition which constantly affirms the priority and the sufficiency of the text. And when we do that, we prevent imbalances from taking place. Not that the teaching of the Bible should lack variety; there is an inherent variety in the Bible itself. And expositional preaching needn’t be limited to exhaustive and exhausting studies through books of the Bible. We can still be expository while doing character studies, or a series on the parables or in Luke, or even on key Christian doctrines.

And then, just one other thing. The great value of expository preaching for me is that it eliminates Saturday night fever. Expository preaching liberates the preacher from the pressure of last-minute preparation on Saturday night. Our congregations, at the same time, don’t approach the church asking themselves, “I wonder what the minister will preach about today.” And at the same time, the pastor is freed from facing the same question, “I wonder what I will preach about today,” and facing it with painful, relentless regularity. From a purely pragmatic perspective, that alone is enough to convince me of the value of expository preaching. If there were no other reason at all, I would still do it for that reason. As a pragmatist, I would do it. And I am in awe of the individuals who tell me that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, they start all over again, and they put their head down and determine just where it is they’re going next week.

Now, it’s good, incidentally, to take breaks in the course of series of expositions, particularly if they’re peculiarly long—every so often to interrupt a series and address something else, still in an expositional way, but just to change the tone a little. If there’s something happens that turns the nation in a particular direction, we may choose to deal with that. The destruction of the space shuttle: probably good, if you’re embroiled in a series in Ezekiel on that particular Sunday, to recognize that the whole nation is asking the question, “Why would a loving God allow the destruction of the space shuttle?” Now, you can steam through Ezekiel, but you can pretty well be sure that every time your congregation’s mind wanders, it wanders to the destruction of space shuttle Challenger. It may be the same of the Waco, Texas, event. It may actually be true of the time when Magic Johnson announced that he was suffering from AIDS. My approach to things is that when the bird flies into the room and the whole congregation goes to the bird, then you better include the bird in your proclamation. So, when the whole nation turns to the death of Princess Diana, it may be a good time for you to think about the implications of addressing the death of a princess from a biblical perspective.

So that there is a flexibility that we possess, that we’re not slaves to our systems. That is very different, however, from the familiar picture of a pastor in his study on a Saturday evening with his hair all disheveled, surrounded by balls of paper, each of which represents a sermon idea that refused to be born. And you got that classic thing that all of us have cut out from Leadership magazine years ago, where you got that picture of the man who’s standing forward at the podium, and he’s saying, “And we’re now waiting to hear, with great anticipation, what our dear brother Begg has upon his heart from God, what he has so faithfully prepared to deliver to us today.” And then it cuts back, and the guy’s got his pad in front of him, and he’s got all these various sermon titles that he’s still scribbling on: things like “Will Dogs Be in Heaven?,” and he’s got that scrabbled down, and he’s got something like “How Many Elect Are There?,” and he’s got that knocked out, and “Who Are the 144,000?,” he’s got that, all that. And he frankly doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, and the guy says, “We’re greatly waiting for the God to speak to us through the thing.” And the poor soul doesn’t know where he is.

Well, you know, Spurgeon came perilously close to that, didn’t he? Listen to Spurgeon: “To me still, I must confess, my text selection is a very great embarrassment …. I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.”[21] Now, if you’ve been there, you know what a tyranny that is: “Well, I don’t know if I can, uh… I don’t know if I can, uh… you know, I don’t know if I can preach that. And I don’t know if I can preach that.” We’re not doing any study of the Bible; we’re waiting for some, you know, divine effusion that will tell us that this passage is right. So, you know, you’ve been through sixty-four of the books of the Bible, and it still hasn’t happened, and you know that if it doesn’t happen in the next two—and you’re hopin’ that it doesn’t happen in Revelation—that you’re gonna have to go back and start in Genesis again. Or maybe you’re gonna to do the whole random thing of … you know? And then you’re going to give it, “And the Lord moved my heart just last evening…” Moved your heart? Should have moved your house!

“That … is the main part of my study; much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics”—this is Spurgeon!—“ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion”—which is where a bunch of our material should be, incidentally—“sailing on and on over leagues of broken water, till I see the red lights and make sail direct to the desired haven.” What a genius, that he could describe his confusion in such poetic terms, you know. He can make even fouling up sound like something you want to do, you know? “I believe that almost any Saturday in my life I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt [the] liberty to preach them, to last me for a month.” Hey, I’ll use ’em! Give ’em to me! What do you go rolling them up for? You should have kept that! “But I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods.”[22]

Now, Spurgeon was unique, probably a genius. So we’re not going to allow his pattern to overturn the points that we’ve made—at least I hope not. In this, though, let us remind ourselves of this: that God does not come upon methods, but he comes upon men. And even when our methods may not give the appearance of being the best or the wisest, he may still come upon us for the glory of his name, for the good of his people.

I’ve often imagined—and I think some of you would probably concur with this—I’ve often imagined what it would have been like to be able to turn to volumes of Spurgeon’s consecutive exposition rather than to the volumes of the collected sermons that he has left to us, as rich as they are. I wish, actually, that somebody could have got to Spurgeon and said to him, “Hey, you know, maybe what you ought to do is just try the book of James, and do that for the next wee while. Don’t sit up until the early hours of Sunday morning, wondering what is God’s word for the moment. It is all God’s word, and this is the moment. So bring it to bear.” Spurgeon, actually—and we’ll close here—serves as a reminder to us that the best of men are men at best, and that there has only been one perfect preacher ever, and that was Jesus himself.


[1] Nehemiah 8:3 (NIV 1984).

[2] Nehemiah 8:8 (NIV 1984).

[3] John Calvin, sermon on 1 Timothy 1:2, quoted in T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 42.

[4] Roy Clements, “Expository Preaching in a Post-Modern World” (address, National Preaching Conference, Florida, 1996), 17, http://www.affinity.org.uk/downloads/foundations/Foundations%20Archive/40_10.pdf.

[5] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 125.

[6] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2. Paraphrased.

[7] Clements, “Expository Preaching,” 11.

[8] Clements, 11.

[9] Nehemiah 8:1 (NIV 1984).

[10] Stott, Between Two Worlds, 92.

[11] Donald Grey Barnhouse, “On Expository Preaching,” in We Prepare and Preach: The Practice of Sermon Construction and Delivery, ed. Clarence Stonelynn Roddy (Chicago: Moody, 1959), 29.

[12] Clements, 16.

[13] Clements, 16.

[14] See 1 Thessalonians 2:7.

[15] Eliza E. Hewitt, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” (1890).

[16] Hebrews 7:24 (NIV 1984).

[17] The Directory for Public Worship, chap. 6.

[18] Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me” (1872).

[19] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850–53; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 16:76. Paraphrased.

[20] C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students, first series (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 74.

[21] C. H. Spurgeon, “On the Choices of a Text,” in Lectures to My Students, first series (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 88.

[22] Spurgeon, 88.

Copyright © 2021, 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.