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New Testament ExpositionFrom Text to Sermon
By Walter L. Liefeld
ZondervanCopyright © 1989 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Importance of Expository Preaching
What Is Expository Preaching?
Which of the following is an expository message?
Preacher Brown has chosen Galatians 2:20 as his text. He carefully deals with each phrase in the verse. Devoting approximately equal time to each major topic in his outline, he speaks of the crucifixion of self as the only way to spiritual victory, the importance of the resurrection power of Christ in our lives, the daily walk of faith, and the self-sacrificing love of Christ.
Preacher Gray was preaching through 1 Peter. The passage for the day was 1 Peter 3:13-22. He preached the gospel from verse 18 ("Christ died for sins once for all"). He dealt thoroughly with the issue of the "spirits in prison" in verse 19. From this verse he emphasized the certainty of judgment. Then he stressed the need for baptism as a means of identification with the death of Christ from verse 21.
Preacher Green was guest preacher in a church where, he felt, in the attempt to be relational and meet the personal needs of the congregation, the gospel tended to be neglected. He spoke on Romans 5:1-11. Rather than basing his sermon outline on the main clauses of the passage, he structured his sermon on subordinate clauses and phrases, such as "through faith" and "through our Lord Jesus Christ" in verse 1, "because God has poured out his love ..." in verse 5, "while we were still sinners" in verse 8 and "if we were reconciled ... through the death of his son" in verse 10.
Preacher White preached on the topic, "What Kind of Faith Works?" He picked up the thought from the end of Hebrews 10, especially verses 35-39 and then took most of his material from chapter 11. He selected examples that illustrated the kind of faith God sought in us, including examples from the list of those who suffered because of their faith in verses 32-38. He spent a large amount of time, proportionately, on the last two verses and also included the first three verses of chapter 12.
Which was an expository message? The first one, by Preacher Brown could have been, even though it concentrated on only one verse. However, he failed to take the context into account, which deals with justification by faith apart from the law. He missed the striking double use of the word, "law" in verse 19, which draws attention to itself as that to which we "die." He also neglected the following verse, which provides the conclusion to the passage. If he had faithfully studied that conclusion and observed the whole context, he would have seen that his sermon was actually a series of his own favorite thoughts on the spiritual life, which he impressed, wrongly, on this text.
Preacher Gray, in his sequence of sermons, had come up to one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. Those of us who have tried to preach through a book sympathize with him. Such a passage cannot be avoided in a series. In his effort to deal with it, however, he got too deeply involved in the vexing issue of the identity of the spirits in prison. On the other hand, he failed to give an even exposition of the passage, and hastened too soon to apply its parts. In the process he imported his own views, true and important though they may have been, and failed to apply the passage in the same way Peter applied it in context.
Preacher Green seems to have committed the cardinal sin of emphasizing minor points and minimizing the main clauses of the passage. But Preacher Green had insight into the particular need of this congregation. They had already heard a great deal about peace and joy. What they needed was to know the basis of this in the death of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. In addition they needed to realize that all are sinners and none can claim peace and joy without repentance and faith. Preacher Green realized that these truths were basic to Romans 5, and applied them in a way that was faithful to the text. His message was, therefore, expository.
Since Preacher White gave a topical message, we might assume that it was not expository. Quite on the contrary, he understood the function of Hebrews 11 in its context and in the Book of Hebrews as a whole. Rather than simply preaching through the list of "heroes of faith," he anchored his message in the important statements that conclude the previous chapter. He also showed where this would lead by looking briefly at the beginning of chapter 12. In this way he also laid the foundation for the next sermon. But how could his topical sermon be called expository if it did not go through the chapter step by step? The reason is that his topic was drawn from the purpose and teaching of the passage. The theme is clear from the end of chapter 10. He did not impose a topic on the passage; he allowed the passage to determine the topic. Then he showed how the passage supported its own affirmation: the kind of faith that works is that which looks steadfastly to God and perseveres even in the absence of any visible support. The message was truly expository in that it explained the author's purpose and teachings in the chapter. It clarified the essential truths of the passage and prepared the way for the preacher to apply them in the contemporary situation of his congregation.
Expository preaching is an elusive ideal. Many preachers aspire to it, perhaps a good number feel they have attained to it, but in reality probably few are acknowledged masters. The examples above make clear that expository preaching is not some narrowly defined method of outlining the text. It is not just following a passage clause by clause. Likewise, a message can meticulously deal with details of vocabulary and grammar, and still fail to explain the intended teaching and application of the author. Our first task, therefore, is to determine the essential nature and characteristics of expository preaching.
Rather than commencing with a definition of expository preaching, we shall start with a consideration of exposition as a basic concept. The essence of exposition is explanation. If I explain something, I am reasonably free to choose my own method, but I must be faithful to my subject. If I were asked to explain the operation of a computer, I would not be at liberty to pick and choose certain aspects of it that particularly interest me. I would be responsible to explain, in proper balance, the basic elements of computer theory, construction, language, and operation. Unless I were giving a technical lecture on computer science, my talk would probably focus on operation, with only enough information on theory to make the operation understandable. Further, in a training session for operators, "operation" must include not only "how it works," but "how to work it."
Without a substantial content of clear explanation, balanced in its coverage of all major aspects, an exposition will be unreliable. Without practical application, exposition is mere description. If exposition is explanation, expository preaching is explanation applied.
The essential nature of expository preaching, then, is preaching that explains a passage in such a way as to lead the congregation to a true and practical application of that passage. There is no single method by which this is accomplished, but are there any characteristics that are discernible in all true expository messages? We may suggest the following:
1. An expository message deals with one basic passage of Scripture. References to other Scriptures are always directly relevant to, illustrative of, and supportive of the teaching of the passage at hand. An expository message may also be a topical message, provided that it draws the essential information on the topic from one passage of Scripture. Reference to other Scriptures is subordinate to the exposition of the main passage.
2. An expository message has hermeneutical integrity. It is faithful to the text. This means that it reproduces the significant elements of the passage in the same balance and with the same intention as that of the original author. It does not omit or distort any essential of the message of that text, even to support true doctrines and good purposes. The text is not a box of candy from which one selects his favorite treats. It is the Word of God, which has come to us to be master, not servant. The sermon serves the text; it does not use it. If the sermon does not show awareness of, and respect for, the literary genre, original purpose, direction of narrative or of argument, and intended meaning and application of the text, it is not expository. That is the case no matter how much it may quote and refer to the passage. It is the case even if the individual message is part of a series on the book.
3. An expository message has cohesion. It is possible to provide many exegetical insights from such things as words and tenses, but yet fail to string the "gems" into a usable whole. Doctrinal truth may be brought out, ethical imperatives may be observed, but unless there is cohesion, the value of the parts is lost for the lack of a whole.
Excerpted from New Testament Exposition by Walter L. Liefeld Copyright © 1989 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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