Biblical Justification for Expository Preaching
Having defined expository preaching as that form of preaching that begins with the Scriptures and is structured around the Scriptures’ intended meaning and form, what biblical justification can be made for asserting that this kind of preaching is the purest and most proper form of biblical preaching? The clearest biblical injunction to preach in an expository manner is found in 2 Timothy 4:2: “preach the word.” If this exhortation is to be seriously applied, then the sermon must not be derived from a topic, but rather, “the word.” Such, “word” based preaching is also biblically exemplified as well. When Israel returned from Babylonian captivity and began rebuilding the wall and the city, she was freshly exposed to the law of God and subsequent spiritual renewal. How did Israel’s leaders expose the congregation to the law? Nehemiah 8:7, 8 indicates, “. . . the Levites explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
Such verse-by-verse exposition finds few friends among modern day topical preaching proponents. Rick Warren indicates that he himself spent two and a half years preaching expositionally through the book of Romans to his congregation. However, he argues that expository preaching (text based rather than topic driven), will not result in the attraction and thus the conversion of the lost. He further suggests that his approach of beginning with a secular subject is precisely how the apostle Paul began his ministry to the lost, especially at the Areopagus in Athens.
However, a careful examination of the entire context of Acts 17:16-34 demonstrates something quite contrary to Warren’s suggestion. Acts 17:17 indicates how Paul began his ministry in Athens. “So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be there.” But where did Paul begin in his reasoning with these “unbelievers?” Earlier in Acts 17:2-3, Paul’s general course of “reasoning” is portrayed. “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead . . .” Paul did not attempt to attract seekers with secular topics or quotes from unbelieving philosophers. He began with the Scriptures and explained Jesus and the resurrection. In fact, that is precisely what Paul was preaching in Athens when he was pulled up to the Areopagus to give an account for his comments. “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “ËWhat would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, “ËHe seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’ – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection“ (Acts 17:18, emphasis mine). Contrary to Warren’s suggestion, even when Paul arrived to defend himself before the court of the Areopagus, he did not base his messages upon a quotation from a secular philosopher. Rather he began with references to creation and the supremacy of the one true God. His brief allusion to a secular poet was not even central to his argument. The Scriptures were his basis and beginning point.
The same idea could be said of Peter on the Day of Pentecost when he exposited Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:14-21) to a crowd of unbelieving Jews, among whom 3,000 were converted that very day. Stephen also preached an expositional message to the unbelieving religious leaders of Israel before he was stoned (Acts 7). The biblical exhortation and examples argue for the kind of preaching that begins with the Bible and exposes the listener to its intended meaning, urging them to make accurate use of it. I am not suggesting, however, that a preacher should not introduce an expository message with a contemporary illustration. Contemporary illustrations are not what Rick Warren and other topical-driven preachers are advocating. Rather than move from an illustration to a given biblical text, many topical sermons tend to start with a secular topic and pre-conceived idea and use various quotations and expression to support the idea, many of which may be biblical texts. I am arguing that such is not what the Bible exemplifies.
Today I had the privilege to sit in a lecture on the life, ministry and theology of Jonathan Edwards, by Dr. John Hannah. One of the points Dr. Hannah drove home today was in regard to why preachers like Edwards (or Calvin and Luther for that matter) did not give themselves to the kind of exegetical preaching that I would be arguing for in these series of posts. He reminded us that the culture was far more biblically literate than our own. We are essentially illiterate when it comes to knowing Scriptures. Edwards could take a portion of a verse and explain briefly its context and basic meaning and then move to more theological, rational and application, because his congregation was so well versed in the Bible. One of the clear reasons why biblical preaching is so necessary today is because we are, for the most part, so woefully lacking in our exposure to, let alone our understanding of even the basics of the Bible. Expository preaching, in my estimation, is precisely what our generation is in most need.