During my five years at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana one of my greatest joys was having faithful brothers come and deliver God’s Word to the God’s people. Filling the pulpit is not something to be taken lightly and I always sought to find a faithful messenger of the Word to feed the flock. For that reason, it was reassuring to bring seasoned pastors to fill-in, but it was equally rewarding to give younger men the opportunity to bring God’s Word. Continue reading
“Long ago, at many time and in many ways,
God spoke to our father by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things,
through who also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God
and the exact imprint of his nature,
and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
After making purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
— Hebrews 1:1–3 —
If it is true that in these last days, God has spoken by his Son as Hebrews 1 says, why should pastors preach from the Old Testament? If we have the full revelation of God in the substance of Christ, what interest should New Testament Christians have with Old Testament shadows? Surely, it is good to know history and to learn lessons from the past, but do we really need lengthy sermon series of Exodus or to read 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles?
Without committing the Marcion heresy of denying the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament, some self-identified “New Testament” preachers have stressed the New Testament so much they have lead their flocks to miss (or deemphasize) more than two-thirds of the Bible. In the language of Galatians 3:8, they miss the gospel preached beforehand and hence minimize the full riches of the gospel contained in both testaments.
If you have heard or imbibed such thinking, you might ask whether regular portions of the Old Testament are necessary for reading and preaching for New Testament discipleship. I believe it is, for at least four reasons. Continue reading
Performing in the flesh is shorthand for doing work unto the Lord in your own strength, by your own wisdom, and with your own will power. In short, it is service without spiritual grace, and Satan loves to seduce you with it. Such Spirit-less service may be outwardly beautiful, relationally effective, or even successful, but because it is done without faith, it displeases God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6) and bears no lasting fruit. Sadly because our hearts are deceitful we may even call such unbelieving service good, when God does not. For that reason, it is always right to return to the Word and ask: What does God say?
What service does God find pleasing? What counterfeit performances originate in unbelief? And how can we tell the difference? Continue reading
A few years ago Thabiti Anyabwile published a little book, What is a Healthy Church Member? In it, he urged healthy church members to be expositional listeners, by which he meant that just as the faithful pastor makes the main point of his message the main point of the text (i.e., expositional preaching), so healthy congregations will also make it a priority to comprehend the expositional sermon. About that say time, Christopher Ash wrote a little guide on the same subject: Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons.
Well, apparently, Anyabwile and Ash are not alone in their estimation that the congregation plays a dramatic role in the “effectiveness” of a pastor’s preaching. As I recently scanned D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic text, Preaching and Preachers, I came across the same idea. In chapter eight, he discusses the “relationship of the pew to the pulpit” (143) and addresses the vital role that congregants play in the service of preaching. While not minimizing the role of the preacher, and abhorring the idea that the pew dictate what the pulpit should preach, he is exactly right to emphasize how churches confirm or deny the message of the gospel by means of their own inattention or eager anticipation. Continue reading
Somewhere in Numbers, I realized that I needed to limit my Old Testament sojourning to the forty years Yahweh led Israel through the Wilderness. Even then, I didn’t have time to consider all that Numbers says about God’s dealings with Israel.
What I did preach and what I pray our church saw, however, was a God relentless in his pursuit of his holiness. Continue reading
In creation, God put beauty and design into the largest galaxy and the tiniest cell. Accordingly, we have, for centuries, used different instruments to behold the glory of God in creation: the microscope enables us to see God’s miniscule handiwork; the telescope opens our eyes to heavenly vistas. From both ends of the spectrum, we benefit from considering God’s micro-creation and macro-creation.
Something similar takes place in the Bible. When we read Scripture, we can find gospel truth in a word (propitiation), a phrase (‘it is finished’), a verse (John 3:16), a story (Job’s suffering and restoration), or a series of songs (the Psalter). Indeed, from every angle, we behold God’s wisdom and goodness in his word. Yet, unless we are intentional, it is easy to focus on the smaller parts of the Bible and to miss the larger ones.
There are many reasons for that—lack of time, lack of understanding (what is Revelation about?), lack of interest (why do I need to read the minor prophets?). In our fast-paced world, it is easy to overlook the Bible’s big picture, and often pastors have not helped their people “put the Bible together.” Still, I am convinced that if we are to have minds renewed by the Scriptures, we must not simply have a collection of unrelated memory verses free-floating in our heads; we must also understand the larger framework(s) of the Bible. For that reason, I want to suggest five reasons why I preach larger sections of Scripture. Continue reading
Not surprisingly, from the pattern of Old Testament priests and prophets to the teaching ministry of Jesus, the church continues a pattern of expositional preaching. This is most evident in the book of Acts.
The Expositional Acts of the Apostles
In Acts, Luke gives a selection of exemplary sermons by Peter (Acts 3-4), Stephen (Acts 7), and Paul (Acts 13-14, 17). In these sermons, the Spirit-filled preachers are regularly appealing to the Old Testament, retelling the history of Israel, and explaining how Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament patterns, promises, and prophecies.
For instance, in Acts 13:15 Paul and Barnabas are invited to give a word of exhortation (a sermon?) “after reading from the Law and the Prophets.” It is easy to see the pattern of exposition here: read the word, preach about the same word. Paul paid attention to his audience, but he faithfully proclaimed God’s Word according to the pattern of sound words that was found in the Old Testament.
Of course, from the terse details in Acts, we cannot replicate the form of the apostle’s exposition, but we can see their commitment to explaining the Old Testament Scriptures: They showed how the Old Testament related to Jesus, and called their audiences to repent and believe.
Moreover, when Paul handed off his ministry to the Ephesians elders, he said to them, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (vv. 26-27). His reference to blood harkens back to the watchman’s role in Ezekiel (ch. 3, 33); he likens the preacher’s task of protecting the flock to the watchman’s task of warning the city, and the way he tells the Ephesians elders to guard the flock is by means of teaching the whole counsel of Scripture.
Therefore, from the book of Acts, we can discern a flexible pattern of exposition intended to proclaim Christ from all the Scriptures. Still, there is one more place in the New Testament that demonstrates the validity and vitality of expositional preaching. And this final illustration is arguably the most convincing, as it is the only sermon full-length sermon in Scripture—Hebrews.
Hebrews: An Expositional Sermon
While we read Hebrews today as a letter, it has every indication that this epistle was a sermon first, and a letter second. On that point Dennis Johnson observes a number of sermonic features ( Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, 167-78):
- The book closes with the words, “my word of exhortation,” which in other contexts including Acts 13 indicate a sermon;
- Hebrews regularly exalts in God’s spoken word (1:1-2; 2:1-4; 12:25-29);
- the Scripture citations are introduced as words spoken, not just written (3:7, 15; 5:6; 10:15);
- the author of Hebrews twice abbreviates his comments in order shorten his sermon (9:5; 11:32);
- unlike other letters that begin with doctrine and transition to application, Hebrews unites exposition and application, such that in each section of the sermon there is biblical quotation, explanation, and exhortation;
- there is a discernible outline to the sermon—Jesus is better than angels (1:4-2:28); better than Moses (3:1-4:13); better than Aaron (4:14-7:28); better than old covenant sacrifices (8:1-10:31); better than the patriarchs (10:32-12:17); better than Moses as the mediator of worship (12:18-29);
- the length of Hebrews read aloud totals about 55 minutes, which is in the ballpark for a sermon.
In this outline, it becomes clear that the content of Hebrews is a series of biblical expositions. Specifically, the author cites, explains, and applies Psalm 8:4-6 (Hebrews 2), Psalm 95:7-11 (Hebrews 3-4); Psalm 110:1, 4 (Hebrews 5-7); Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Hebrews 8-10); Habakkuk 2:2-4 (Hebrews 10-11); Exodus 19:16-23 (Hebrews 12). By citing, explaining, and applying these six passages (plus drawing attention to other Old Testament persons and passages), the author models a kind of biblical exposition that is loaded with Scripture, well-illustrated, and filled with application. For this reason, it serves as conclusive support that the kind of preaching modeled by Scripture is expositional preaching.
The Pastoral Epistles
But Scripture goes even further. God’s word not only models exposition; it also commands it. If we take seriously the words of Paul to Timothy as words of instruction for the church, we find that Paul actually commands pastors to preach expositionally. In his first letter to Timothy Paul writes,
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:11-16)
Stressing Timothy’s role of teaching (mentioned 3x, plus “commanding” and “exhortation”), Paul tells his son in the faith: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” Like the priests of old (who functioned as pastors in their own right), Paul instructs Timothy to read the Scripture and teach the Scripture with exhortation. In short, to turn back the false teachers and the false teaching in the Ephesian church, Timothy is to herald the truth of the gospel, trusting that the word of God will sufficiently equip the saints, expose the wolves, and build up the church.
A Final Plea for Expositional Preaching
The same is true today. Pastors do not build true churches by managerial excellence, neither do they comfort souls with modern psychology. Rather, pastors are to lead the flock of God to read the Scriptures, understand the Scriptures, and apply the Scriptures.
When pastors are faithful to do that, churches will grow and be built up in the doctrines of the faith. When they fail to do that, they are left to the most popular strategies and psychologies that the world has to offer. In our Southern Baptist context, expositional preaching has been out of fashion in local churches for too long. Only by returning to it, will the word of God be given room to purify the church, sanctify the saints, and convert the lost.
May God be pleased to give us ears to hear the whole counsel of God word preached and heard from faithful expositors of God’s word.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss
The Old Testament is the not the only place where we find expositional preaching. Jesus himself was expositional preacher. In fact, he was more than an expositional preacher, according to John John 1:18 he literally ‘exegeted’ the Father, meaning that he explained, exposed, and revealed the character of God in his very life and person.
Jesus Was an Expositional Preacher
Jesus also carried on a ministry of exposition before and after his death and resurrection. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly quoted the Old Testament and then provided a more accurate interpretation and deeper application. In full agreement with his opponents that God’s word was divinely inspired, Jesus taught as one with authority (Matt 7:29). Interestingly, with absolute authority, he did not create his own sermons; he repeatedly put himself under the word of God (cf. Gal 4:4) and interpreted how he himself fulfilled the Old Testament.
One example of this exposition comes on the road to Emmaus. Writing about the day of his resurrection, Luke records the manner in which Jesus spoke to Simon and Cleopas, the two forlorn followers of Christ who had left Jerusalem for the hot springs of Emmaus. Luke records, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). While we cannot know the content of his ‘sermon,’ we know that Jesus began with Genesis and continued through the Old Testament expositing all the places that Christ’s sufferings and glories were revealed. Jesus followed the same pattern in the Upper Room. Luke 24:44-47 reads,
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Though condensing Jesus’ instruction, it is apparent that Luke gives the sense of Jesus’ teaching. Like on the road to Emmaus, he explains how all three sections of the Old Testament (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings/Psalms) relate to himself. In so doing Jesus exposits the whole Hebrew Bible in light of his cross and resurrection.
While it was the Holy Spirit that gave Peter and the other apostles power to proclaim the gospel; it was Jesus post-resurrection instruction that explained how the often-confused disciples could understand how to interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ. As George Smeaton observed a century ago, “Christ’s oral expositions are to be taken as the middle term, or as the connecting link between Old Testament records on the one hand, and the apostolic commentary on the other. In a word, He was Himself the interpreter of Scripture.” His Christ-centered interpretations sit underneath the testimony of the apostles and can be observed in the texture of the New Testament (cf. George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 4-7).
Jesus is the Model
In the end, it is impossible to duplicate Jesus’ teaching style, because Jesus is inimitable and because we only have the testimony of Jesus’ apostles, not his actually sermon manuscripts. Still, while we cannot copy Jesus’ sermon style, his pattern of citing the Scripture, explaining Scripture, and applying Scripture is the basic formula for all exposition preaching. It is discernible when we look carefully at how Jesus related to the Old Testament, and it is even more apparent when we look at how his immediate followers preached in the books of Acts and Hebrews. We’ll do that tomorrow.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss
I recently shared this article with our deacons. This post which focuses on the practice of preaching in the Old Testament is part two of four.
The simple answer for why expositional preaching is necessary is that the health of the church depends on the regular reading of God’s word and the full explanation of the whole counsel of God. This claim can be supported by church history (as seen yesterday), but it can also be seen in Scripture. And in Scripture, expositional preaching is supported by both the doctrine of God’s word and the practice of God’s people. Today we will consider the doctrine of Scripture and the practice in the Old Testament; tomorrow and Friday we will consider the practice of Jesus himself and the apostles.
A Short Doctrine of Scripture
First, as to doctrine, the belief that God’s word is powerful is seen in the way that God’s created the light by his word (Gen 1:3); he upholds the universe with his word (Heb 1:3); and he raises the dead to life with his word (Ezekiel 37; John 11). Understanding the power of God’s Word, preachers who are unashamed of the Word must labor to expound God’s word and not arrange Bible verses around their own words, ideas, or outlines.
The power of preaching is not in the preaching of the Word; it is the Word preached. A short list of verses can illustrate this point.
- The prophets of old never spoke for themselves; they always began their messages, “Thus says the Lord.” For these messengers of God; the power of their ‘preaching’ was in God’s oracle; not in there rhetorical giftedness.
- Accordingly Isaiah says that God’s word never returns void and always accomplishes what God purposes. (55:10-11)
- In Jesus’ parable of the four soils, the seed was the word of God; and the seed had power to create life when it landed on the good soil. (Matthew 13).
- In another parable of the kingdom, Jesus spoke of the word growing when the farmer slept. (Mark 4; 1 Corinthians 3).
- God’s word is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword; thus, only the word has the power to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)
- After hearing the voice of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter writes that there is more certainty in Old Testament Scriptures than in his own personal encounter with God. In other words, the Bible is more reliable and authoritative than our subjective experiences. (2 Pet 1:19-21)
In short, expositional preaching can only be seen as effective when the doctrine of God’s word informs our theology. A high view of God’s word will enable us to preach the word in season and our of season; a low view of God’s word exposes us to the temptation of looking for something with more immediate flash and less eternal impact. For these reasons, expositional preaching is the method of preaching which best conveys the form and substance of God’s word.
In the Old Testament
Still there is another reason why expositional preaching is necessary—it is modeled by God’s people. In the Old Testament, a kind of expositional preaching occurred when the Levites gave the sense of the text to the nation of Israel on a feast day that commemorated their return to the land. Listen to Nehemiah 8:5-8.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
Carrying out their priestly duties (cf. Lev 10:11; Deut 33:10-11; Mal 2:1-9), these servants of the Word enabled the righteous remnant to understand what God expected of them. Tragically, the nation of Israel suffered greatly when the priests failed to instruct the people with the Law (Mal 2:1-9). When the Old Testament “pastors” failed to feed God’s people from the book of Moses, the people starved spiritually and went in search for other deities.
Applied to today, could it not be the case that one reason why expositional preachers pack stadiums today is because there is a hunger for the Word of God among God’s people (cf. Amos 8:3)? True believers hunger and thirst for God’s word and they are willing to go anywhere to feast on his Word. As a preacher, who also hungers for the word of God, I know of no better way to ensure that God’s people hear God’s voice than by regularly preaching the Word as it was inspired, praying that God would illuminate eyes and captivate hearts as the Scriptures are explained and applied, verse-by-verse, week-after-week.
Tomorrow, we’ll pick up the biblical argument for expositional preaching in the New Testament.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss
Paige Patterson has said, “There is no genuinely good preaching except exposition.” Such serious words require us to consider what expositional preaching is and why it is so important that preachers only preach expositional sermons. Continue reading