Expository Preaching – General Thoughts After 42 Years Of Trying To Do It.
About a dozen young men stood by a bus stop. A spirit of excitement was very evident. Where were they going? To a football match perhaps? Not at all. They were on their way to listen to preaching. The young men were students at the Baptist College, and this evening’s business was a tremendous event for them. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was making his annual visit to Manchester; UK. The Free Trade Hall, seating 2,000 people, would be packed to capacity. Early attendance was vital to get a ‘good seat.’ The singing was like the sound of many waters, though there was not much of it. No chance of the singing taking over here. The people had come to listen to the preaching and the sermon was about to begin. The young men, along with the hundreds of others, sat with wrapped attention for the inevitable sixty minutes of Bible exposition, delivered under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The young men had heard of ‘the Doctor;’ and had read his books with great profit, but to hear him preach was something else. Their souls were thrilled and they went out as those that dreamed. God had visited them. But more was to come, for the annual visit included a lunch time preaching the following day at the Methodist Central Hall. The young men were there again for another portion of the “finest of the wheat.” The Spirit of God was preparing them for their life’s work, and was giving them the unspeakable favour of hearing what was probably the best preaching in the world.
I was one of those favoured young men, and for each of the three years I was at College we made the annual pilgrimage into town to have our souls fed, and to learn how to preach. O how God blessed us in those days. This expositional preaching was something of which I had never heard. I was brought up in a strongly fundamentalist congregation which had a healthy doctrine of separation from the world. I will ever be grateful for that. But this ‘expository preaching’ was not on our agenda. Jesus taught – “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets . . .”
In 1961 I was called to my first pastorate. It was in the Rossendale Valley on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border. I was just 26 years of age, and my wife three years younger. For better or for worse, she was duly installed as President of the Baptist Women’s League (being about 35 years younger than any of the other ladies) and I was put in the pulpit. I well remember my first Sunday. It wasn’t exactly the Free Trade Hall with 2,000 people hanging on my every word, but it was a beginning. The Lord was taking some very raw material and in his grace and mercy was beginning to mould it. He has continued with us as we moved on to Belfast then Dudley, forty two years in all. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me.”
FEELING MY FEET
As there had been no expository preaching in my background, so it was with the people to whom I had come. Like me, they were used to one off, topical sermons, as some subject would take hold of the preacher’s mind. My first efforts were not good. I had a time of real blessing going through the Sermon on the Mount, but so much of it was regurgitated Lloyd-Jones. I did tell the people that I had found some help in reading ‘the Doctor’, but I don’t think I told them how much. I also remember embarking on an ‘exposition’ of the book of Judges, which seemed to me to demand that some young upstart would open up its treasures. After the fourth sermon I knew I was in real trouble, and after the sixth I gave it up altogether; feeling ‘led’ to take up something else. But the Lord was gracious to me and, little by little, granted me wisdom to see what should be attempted and what left.
AS IT COUNTS
Obviously there is great variation in everyone’s ministry. Often topical preaching is exactly what is required. But the value of going through a book of God’s Word, preaching it as it comes, cannot be overestimated. After all, the Holy Spirit did not give us Exodus 3v20 then John 5v24 then Daniel 6v14 then Romans 11v8. He gave it in order; and why should we not give it in order; preaching it, as I often say, ‘as it comes.’ There are no hard and fast rules and everyone must be persuaded in his own mind, but my testimony is that I have never been happier in preaching than when in the middle of a series, in my own pulpit, and on a so called ‘ordinary day.’ God’s blessing has rested on me most on such occasions, and none of those days was ever ordinary.
BORING THE PEOPLE
The main criticism I have heard regarding expository preaching is that it is boring. Two things need to be said. One, it certainly can be boring, and two, has no one ever heard other kinds of preaching that is boring? The boring bit is not the style of sermon, but the man who is preaching it. In any kind of preaching it is good to assume that a percentage of the hearers will have come determined to be bored. The percentage will usually be governed by the track record of the man in the pulpit. Do we make a real effort to help people to be interested, or do we assume that it is their privilege to come and listen to us? I have always begun believing a number are present whose attention will need to be won. In that way I help them as much as I can, and also help further those who have every intention to listen. I cannot imagine for one moment the Lord Jesus being lethargic and monotone in his delivery. “The eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him,” and that was during the Scripture reading. After one sentence of his sermon, “All bore him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.” The best remedy for a boring preacher is for some faithful friend to tell him about it. But where can such friends be found? “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
THUS SAITH THE LORD
Expository preaching – of a phrase, a text, or a whole passage – is BRINGING OUT WHAT IS THERE. That is what we mean by exposition. How often we are tempted to bring out what we would like to be there. This is to be resisted at all costs. The preacher’s question as he sits in the study with his Bible open is, ‘What is God saying here?’ Then, in bringing that to the people, he can say in very truth and with much authority, “Thus saith the Lord.”
And Reformed preachers need to be reminded that this includes the gospel. Where has the gospel gone from many of our pulpits? How we need powerful pleading with sinners and the offering of Christ as Saviour. The preacher is not a reformed and refined lecturer; but a burning herald of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” Let us preach as a dying man to dying men. And why are reformed men so afraid of telling stories? Do they feel such are beneath their theological dignity? Let us be like our Master – the world’s greatest storyteller. “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” is so helpful to clarity.
BEWARE THE RAMBLER
Expository preaching is NOT making a comment on every text in view. Going through a number of verses bringing every truth before the people is a recipe for total confusion.
I remember a man treating us to a sermon of sorts on Ephesians. He began at the first chapter and at the first verse and commented on every text in the chapter. Mind you, how he got through without the slightest reference to predestination I don’t know, but he managed. He then proceeded to the second chapter and did exactly the same thing – a comment on every single verse. He then said that he had some thoughts to share with us from the third chapter; but that the clock had beaten him. He had no idea how grateful we were to the clock. Now some in that congregation may have gone away with the idea that that was expository preaching. How sad. It was sheer ramble.
FINDING THE ROAD TO CLARITY
Expository preaching must be ordered with the utmost clarity. This is crucial. Arrows and illustrations may be drawn from all over scripture, personal experience, or anywhere else, but all are aimed at making the subject clear. Robert Dabney is brilliant on this and his book “Evangelical Eloquence” (Banner of Truth) should be read by every preacher. On this subject, there is nothing to equal it. Learn by heart his wonderfully helpful advice -“Reduce the material to distinct units of thought, with precisely worded headings, and patient transitions.” Write it over your initial paper on which you are doing the general preparation of the sermon. After gathering heaps of material, many men stop at this point, imagining that the work is done. The result is ‘expository hash.’ There must follow the real, vital, and hard work, of sorting it into digestible matter; rather than a plateful of soup, main course, sweet and coffee, all piled on top of each other. Our hearers cannot cope with this. They feel like screaming out for some clarity. In this, Dabney’s sentence becomes a goldmine of helpfulness. The material must be sorted into -“distinct units of thought” – the headings carefully chosen – “with precisely worded headings” – and the movement from one heading to the next made quite clear -“patient transitions.” “All things decently and in order;” especially our sermons.
A MARVELLOUS DISCIPLINE
Going through a book of the Bible is a quite marvellous discipline. You know exactly where you are going and do not spend hours every week wondering what your next subject is going to be. ‘But I like to preach the gospel,’ said one man. Brother; the gospel is on every page. It also means that you have to deal with any difficult texts that arise. There is no dodging the issue. It means too, that the hearers will know exactly where you are coming from, and hopefully, where you are going to. I have found it a marvellous exercise of spirit. I have expounded books like Ephesians, Matthew, Genesis, Romans, Exodus, Revelation, Song of Solomon, Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Peter; Ecclesiastes. I list them just as some come to mind. Series’ have always been my happiest days because I believe the Lord has taught me most from them myself. Then there is the exposition of characters. Noah, Joseph – what days we had with Joseph – Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, etc.
AFRAID TO LAUNCH OUT
Some men say, ‘I am afraid to begin because I may not be able to keep it up.’ I say, launch out on a short series. It may be just three weeks. Announce it as a series and you are committed to going on. That will help you. Then take on a longer series. Give up if you have to. It will not be the end of the world. But remember; we must labour to be lively in our delivery. There are few things worse than God’s truth wedded to man’s sloth. Is what we are preaching a matter of eternal life and eternal death? Then make. it sound like that. “I set before you life and death.”
PREPARATION THAT COSTS
Expositional Series’ cause us to look for the aid of the blessed Holy Spirit in a very particular way. Most preachers, without any preparation at all, can take fifteen verses of the Bible and spin the time out commenting on each one of them. But let him expound that passage taking the themes in turn, opening up all the available truth in an orderly manner for the understanding of his hearers, and it will take him hours. I once heard John MacArthur say that, on average, his series on Matthew took him fifteen hours for each sermon. Now if that be true for John MacArthur; how is it that young Johnny Shortsides can do it in a matter of twenty minutes? Answer; he’s not expounding the passage, he’s only commenting on it. God being our helper; let us labour in the greatest of all callings to represent the One who “loved us and gave himself for us.” How would we prepare if we knew Jesus was going to be in the pew? He is. “PREACH THE WORD.” God bless you, and encourage you, as you work hard at it for His praise and glory.
From the magazine ‘Preaching and Preachers’ Volume 1, Edition 5, October 2004
Augustine Bookroom, Absa, Morelta, South Africa
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