Before we can begin to look at the Biblical and theological basis for expository preaching we first need to have a basic, working definition of what expository preaching is. Mike Aben-droth, in his book, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers, proposes the following definition: “a style or method of preaching God’s Word which seeks to logically expose the biblical text to the mind and the will of the congregation.” He then goes on to explain that it is the duty of the pastor who is preaching expositorily to “open up, uncover and lay bare” the truths of God’s Word and then to encourage the hearers to “obey the truth they have just learned.”i Though many other writers have proposed a number of other definitions of expository preaching, they are all rather similar to Abendroth’s definition. For this reason therefore, the above definition is the one upon which this study is based.
So where does one find expository preaching in the Bible? After all, the term itself does not appear anywhere in Scripture. However, though the term may not appear in the Bible, the practice certainly does.
Old Testament Examples
There are a number of examples in the Old Testament that clearly exhibit this practice as defined by Mike Abendroth. The following two examples should be sufficient for the purpose of this study to illustrate its use in Israel before Jesus’ birth.
Firstly, in Deuteronomy 33:10, Moses, in describing the duties of the Levites shortly before His death said the following, “They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law; they shall put incense before you and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” Here Moses was reminding the people of Israel before their entering into the Promised Land that the Levites had a particular function. One part of their function, essentially repeating what had already been declared to them in Leviticus 10:11, was that of teaching the Law of God. A practice that continued throughout the history of the Jewish nation, right through to the time of Jesus.
This instruction was later repeated as a rebuke by God through the prophet Malachi shortly before the close of the Old Testament canon, “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal 2:7). Clearly this was something that God took seriously and to not obey this command was a serious offence.
Our second example can be found in Nehemiah 8:8, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This verse clearly shows that it is not just the reading of the Law that was important, but also the explaining of it so that there is no confusion by the hearers as to its meaning. Some debate has existed as to whether the phrase “gave the sense” is referring to explaining the text or to translating it into a language they understood. A debate that is somewhat irrelevant as the point remains, those who read the Law to the people took the responsibility of making sure that the people understood the text. Whether translated or explained, the people knew what the text meant. And as we see later in Nehemiah, at another reading of the Law, they applied something that they had heard in the text, “As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.” (Neh 13:3) Reading had become teaching, which was then applied by the hearers.
In both of these examples we see Abendroth’s definition coming to the fore.
New Testament Examples
In the New Testament there are also a number of examples that can be cited, so again two should be sufficient for the purposes of this study.
The first example is Jesus Himself. In Luke 24:27, while walking with the two men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, … interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Here Jesus was expounding the whole of Scripture to these men showing how He was a fulfilment of all that they already had been taught. From the writings of Moses, the Law, and all the prophets that followed, Jesus made sure that these men understood the Scriptures. When Jesus departed from them, after their eyes had been opened, they themselves testified, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus’ clearly did not just quote Scripture to them, but explained the Scriptures to them which brought about conviction and deep understanding of the entire Old Testament.
The second example is the sermons of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts (Acts 2:14-21 and 13:16-47 respectively). In both of these cases Peter and Paul opened up the meaning of what was written in the Old Testament, and on both occasions, the people applied the teachings to themselves which brought about repentance.
BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL BASIS
Other then the examples cited above, there are a number of passages in the Bible that clearly teach the principle of expository preaching as defined by Abendroth. Since half of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul, it should be sufficient to look Paul’s own philosophy of preaching.
Paul’s Writings and Life
When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome he expressed his desire to visit them in order to “impart… some spiritual gift to strengthen… that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine… I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Rom 1:11, 12 &15). Though this is not necessarily referring to expository preaching, there is a clear indication here that Paul desired to teach them the Gospel and not merely to share positive, feel-good messages.
In Paul’s next letter, Paul in no uncertain terms declared what the message of the Gospel was that he preached, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). As Robinson rightly says, “Preaching in Paul’s mind did not consist of a man discussing religion. Instead God Himself spoke through the personality and message of a preacher to confront men and women and bring them to Himself.”ii Too often preaching today offers little to no substance of the Gospel. Instead it offers nice-to-hear feel good messages that any secular motivational speaker can bring. When I consider both the Romans and 1 Corinthians passages, I have to agree with Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert who write, “…one of the most important things we do when we stand to preach is herald the good news of Jesus Christ. We make Christ known, and we make known the good news that salvation is to be found in Him. Just as Christian preaching should edify believers in Christ, it also ought to call those who do not yet believe to do just that. We should preach to evangelize.”iii
Later, towards the end of his life, Paul wrote to the young Timothy charging him, “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus” to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:1-2). Here Paul is using courtroom type language, and is expanding on the type of authority that Timothy had as a preacher. Authority that goes beyond merely reading God’s Word, but authority to reprove, rebuke and exhort his congregation. Let us look a little closer at these words.
Reproof helps the hearers to be able to discern what sin is and what it is not. It is therefore the preacher’s responsibility to inform and assist the listeners to properly understand what God’s Word says about sin and repentance. But it is not enough to just hear about what sin is, it has to be taken further. This is where rebuke comes in.
Rebuke takes reproof one step further in that it attaches ownership to the sin that one has been reproved of. It convicts the sinner by making is personal.iv Where reproof defines the sin, rebuke does what Nathan’s words did to David by saying, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7), you are the guilty party. Again, the hearers cannot be left at this point with no direction as to what they are to do next. It has to lead to exhortation.
Exhortation gives the reproof and rebuke application. It urges and encourages the sinners to repent. Compared to reproof and rebuke which are somewhat negative in nature, exhorting is positive. A good example of this from Paul’s own life is given in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
In fact, nowhere do we find a better exhortation to preach in this manner than Paul’s visit to Thessalonica. In Acts 17:2-3 Luke wrote, “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”
It is interesting to note the words that Luke used to describe Paul’s approach to preaching. Firstly, the word translated as “reasoned” is the Greek word dialegomai. This is a compound word made up of a preposition meaning “through” and a verb meaning “to speak.” Paul’s approach here was to speak through the Scriptures.v It implies not just reading them, but expanding on them.
Luke then goes on to tell us that Paul went on the explain the Word to them. The word translated as “explaining” is the word dianoigo, which again is made up of the preposition “through,” but this time coupled with the verb meaning “to open.” Therefore we see that Paul not only preached through the text, but actually opened it up in an explanatory way.vi
Along with speaking through and opening up the Scriptures, Paul also proved that Jesus died and rose again. The third word Luke used here is paratithēmi, which means to place alongside.vii This is legal language similar to what a lawyer would do in a court of law, to lay out the evidence alongside in order to support his case. In the same way, Paul was laying out the evidence to support his message.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
But why is all of this important? Is it not enough to just hear the Bible read to us and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work? Why can I not just preach or listen to sermons that make me feel better, that provide encouragement rather than make one feel guilty? In the words of a pastor in a medium-sized church in Johannesburg, “I come to church feeling like a dog. I do not want to leave it feeling like a whipped dog.”
The truth of the matter is that we are living in a society where preachers seem to be more interested in reasoning with their hearers through philosophy, popular psychology, current events, motivational speeches, the super-natural, and by providing what itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). As Mark Dever writes in his book Twelve Challenges Churches Face: “No one is looking for the one true God to be incarnate and to bear our sins as a substitute by dying the death of an outcast traitor. So when the church begins to peddle a message by what pleases the world, of course the true gospel will be de-emphasized or compromised, if not actually replaced.”viii
This is a fast track downhill, but one way this can be avoided in the church is to preach like Jesus and the apostles did. Preachers today need to be like Paul who “spoke through,” opened up the Scriptures, and gave evidence to support what he was saying.
We are living in an age of post-modernism where people are not wanting to hear the truth. They desire rather to hear what pleases them and makes them feel good about themselves. As a result, many a pastor has shrunk back from declaring the whole counsel of God, and from preaching expositorily. Rather thematic and topical sermons, or sermons about the heroes of the Bible are preached, with seven step programmes on how to be better people or forty days to a better you, being the main thrust of the message. From the few examples we have seen in this short study, this is not the pattern we see presented by Jesus, the early church leaders, nor even by those in Old Testament times.
Our ministries, and our preaching, need to echo the testimony and charge of Paul to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20, “And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 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.'” (Acts 20:18-27)
Unlike many behind the pulpit today, Paul did not “shrink from declaring … anything that was profitable.” Nor did he “shrink from declaring … the whole counsel of God.” As a result, he was “innocent of the blood of all.” Paul had fulfilled the commission entrusted to him when Ananias laid hands on him in Damascus (cf. Acts 9:15-16) – he had proclaimed the Gospel to the gentiles in its fullness. This mandate is just as valid today as it was back then, for any man who calls himself a preacher, pastor or teacher in the church. It is a great responsibility, which as we have seen is important to God. The cost is too high for us to neglect the declaring of the Gospel in its entirety. We must ensure that our hearers not only hear, but also understand the whole counsel of God.
iMike Abendroth, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 145.
iiHaddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980), 18.
iiiMark Dever & Greg Gilbert, Preach [Theology Meets Practice] (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing, 2012), 57.
ivJohn MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1813.
vO.S. Hawkins, The Pastor’s Guide to Leading & Living (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 25.
viiJames Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Greek Dictionary of the New Testament (James Strong, 1890), 73.
viiiMark Dever, Twelve Challenges Churches Face (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 29.