What is Biblical expository preaching and why is it so important to the health and vitality of the local church? (This article contains many elements of my forthcoming doctoral thesis on expository preaching.)
Many theologians and authors have given excellent definitions of what constitutes this type of preaching. Haddon Robinson has developed this popular definition, “Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.” Albert Mohler defines it this way: “Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible…all other issues and concerns are subordinated to the central task of presenting the biblical text.” Mark Dever emphasizes, “Expositional preaching is preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached.” Bryan Chapell says, “The meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon. The text governs the preacher. Expository preachers do not expect others to honor their opinions. Such ministers adhere to the Scripture’s truths and expect their listeners to heed the same.” Michael Abendroth defines it, “Expository preaching is essentially preaching the biblical text to people with accuracy and intepretational fidelity to the original meaning so that hearers will understand who God is and what He requires.” Stott asserts,
It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching…to expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is ‘imposition’, which is to impose on the text what is not there.
Here is my personal definition: Expository preaching is the God-glorifying, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered explanation and application of any biblical text through the process of careful historical, grammatical, and literary exegesis and skillful organization so that the sermon emerges from the meaning and structure of the text. Its ultimate purpose is to exhort hearers to spiritual transformation through the power of the gospel. First of all, this definition includes a clear Trinitarian understanding of preaching in the context of its doxological nature as an act of worship. In preaching, the Father receives the glory, the Son rules as Lord, and the Spirit empowers. The pastor’s aim lies in seeing first and foremost that what he is doing is an act of worship. Second, expository preaching involves both the explanation and the application of any biblical text. Third, expository preaching must involved careful exegesis and skillful organization where the exegetical outline determines the homiletical outline. Stott again writes, “In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said.” Fourth, preaching is more than just a lecture for information acquisition. Preaching by nature is exhortatory. It declares, exhorts, and calls for a response that aims not only at the mind, but the heart and the will. The ultimate purpose of preaching is not to simply preach a message, but to preach in such a way that the hearers are gripped by the truth and are being transformed spiritually by the power of the gospel. This transformation can be either by for initial salvation (justification) or for progressive sanctification. Without a clear understanding of the doxological, exegetical, organizational, and hortatory elements of expository preaching, a comprehensive definition falls short. John Piper quotes the Scottish preacher James Stewart who articulated it like this: “The aims of all genuine preaching are to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
Do we see this type of preaching modeled on the pages of Scripture?
The Preaching of Moses:
The book of Deuteronomy comprises three expository sermons by Moses. The first starts at 1:6-4:40; the second begins at 4:44-26:68; and the third extends from 29:1-30:20. The Charles Simeon Trust expresses Moses’ ministry this way:
Expository preaching is considered to be among the highest forms of teaching and is, perhaps, the greatest form of preaching. This ecclesiastic importance stems both from the rich Biblical tradition of exposition by example and from Biblical injunction. Much of the Scriptures are ‘preached material’ and we can learn much from God’s preachers handling God’s Word, explaining the plain meaning and intention. Moses did it.
Deuteronomy 1:1-5 provides the context for the entire book and also introduces a three-fold method and model used to describe the nature of Moses’ preaching ministry. It reads:
These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness….In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the Lord had given him in commandment to them, after he had defeated Sihon the king of the Amorites….Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law.
The text says that Moses undertook to “explain” (בֵּאֵ֛ר) this law. This is a rare word in the Hebrew text, which literally means “to dig or hew as if writing on a stone or tablets, but is used here metaphorically to speak of expounding or making clear.” In other words, Moses metaphorically “dug out” or “exegeted” the law of God, which had already been written down back in Exodus, and then proclaimed it by way of explanation and application. This process of “digging” or “exegeting” the written word and then preaching it by way of explanation and application stands at the heart of expository preaching.
The overall thrust of this Hebrew word “explain” (בֵּאֵ֛ר) in the context of Deuteronomy means that Moses preached three expository sermons that were meant to be clear and understandable to his listeners with the aim of motivating and exhorting them to active obedience. The Pulpit Commentary makes a very clear explanation of the nature of this word in relation to expository preaching by stating, “What Moses set himself to do, then, was not to publish a new law, but to make plain to the people the Law already promulgated, to set forth clearly and pointedly what they were required by the Law to be and to do.” This definition proves very important to the role of expository preaching for preachers do not in a sense “publish” a new Word, but instead make plain what the inspired text already says. Moses took the Word that was already written down and inscripturated (in Exodus), and through the sermons in Deuteronomy, he clearly and pointedly laid bare that text. He preached the written Word to the assembled congregation for the purpose of obedience to its inherent authority as Scripture.
Thompson asserts, “It is characteristic of Deuteronomy that a law is first stated and then explained with accompanying hortatory material, thus pressing home the obligation which is laid upon the hearer.” That aptly describes expository preaching. A preacher reads the text, then explains the text, and then exhorts listeners to respond with obedience to the text with appropriate application and motivation. Bryan Chapell stresses the importance of including these elements in his definition of expository preaching by commenting on another Old Testament example of preaching in Nehemiah 8:7-8. He states,
The exposition of the Word involved three elements: the presentation of the Word (it was read), explanation of the Word (making it clear and giving its meaning), and exhortation based on the Word (the priests caused the people to understand). These three elements in this OT proclamation consistently reappear in NT practice.
The Preaching of Jesus:
The synagogue sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4 serves as an effective model of Jesus’ expository preaching. Luke uses two key words to describe the nature of Jesus’ preaching. In 4:15, Luke says that Jesus “taught” (διδάσκω) in their synagogues; and in 4:18-19, Jesus was also anointed to “preach” (κηρύσσω). Jesus proclaimed like a herald but also emphasized didactic exposition with an evangelistic focus. In other words, it was authoritative exposition. In 4:16-17, Jesus stands and reads the Septuagint scroll of Isaiah 61:1-2. Calvin says, “Christ rose up to read, not only that his voice might be better heard, but in token of reverence: for the majesty of Scripture deserves that its expounders should make it apparent, that they proceed to handle it with modesty and reverence.” Effective expository preaching requires pastors to actually read the text with reverence and then not deviate from that text throughout the remainder of the sermon. Piper laments, “We need to get people to open their Bibles and put their finger on the text. Then we need to quote a piece of our text and explain what it means…we are simply pulling rank on people when we tell them and don’t show them from the text. This does not honor the word of God or the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Old says, “As Luke presents the sermon, extensive use is made of the principle that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. When Jesus preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath he was an expository preacher. His sermon was an interpretation of Scripture.” Expository preaching involves declaring the truth like a herald, but it also involves helping the congregation understand the applications and implications from the text to which they are responsible to obey. Larsen says,
The sermon seems brief…The engaging move to contemporary application is clear when Jesus says, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ The pattern seems to be that Jesus the preacher takes a text of Scripture, reads it, explains it, and applies it. This is biblical preaching, and it was a central methodology employed by the Savior in his earthly ministry.
J.C. Ryle says, “It is evident that the full exposition of the passage in Isaiah, which our Lord gave, has been withheld from us. The words which are recorded in this verse are probably the beginning of what our Lord said, and form the key-note of His sermon.” Thus, pastors today should adopt Jesus’ expository practice of reading, explaining, and applying the text, especially using the grammatical-historical method of determining its God-intended meaning.
The Preaching of the Apostles:
Peter. Just as the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus before He preached His first sermon in Nazareth, the Spirit also empowered Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. In Acts Chapter 2, he stood and delivered the Pentecost sermon by doing an exposition of Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11, and Psalm 110:1. He pointed to how all of these Old Testament Scriptures find their fulfillment in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. He preached the Old Testament expositionally, propositionally, and Christocentrically. In the same way Jesus preached for a verdict in Luke 4, Peter did the same here. Acts 2:36-38 reads,
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
Peter emerged as the leader of the church whose expository preaching the Holy Spirit used to advance the gospel and fulfill the mission of the church as 3000 people were saved on that day (Acts 2:41).
Stephen. In addition to Peter, Stephen also engaged in Christocentric expository preaching as evidenced in his sermon in Acts 7. Similar to both Jesus and Peter, the Spirit also empowered his speaking (Acts 6:10.) He expounded the history of Israel by making allusions to Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, and Solomon’s building of the temple. He carefully explained and applied the Old Testament texts to his audience and then urged them to repent and trust in the Lordship of Christ. He practiced expository heralding as he preached not just to inform them of Israel’s history but also to penetrate their hearts with their personal guilt in killing Jesus. He confronts their rebellion in Acts 7:51-53 which states,
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Even in his death, Stephen led the church to fulfill their mission through his expository preaching, which resulted in a great persecution (Acts 8:1-4). God sovereignly used his preaching and subsequent martyrdom to push the church out of Jerusalem in order to reach the nations. Acts 8:4 reads, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” These believers followed the emboldened evangelistic leadership of both Peter and Stephen.
Philip. Philip also modeled the expository preaching of Jesus when he interacted with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. The Holy Spirit also anointed and empowered his ministry (Acts 8:29) by authoritatively leading him in this preaching encounter. The royal official was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 and needed that text expounded, explained and applied to him. In Acts 8:31 he admits he needs someone to “guide” (οδηγεω) him in understanding the Scripture. This word “guide” (οδηγεω) means to “instruct, explain, lead.” In other words, Philip exposited the Old Testament text in a Christocentric way in order to lead this man to understand the gospel. While not standing at a pulpit, Philip preached expositionally in 8:35, which states, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” That is none other than expository preaching. Stephen read, explained and applied a text of Scripture by focusing on the death and resurrection of Christ.
Paul. When he preached in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia in Acts 13 the apostle Paul also imitated the expository model of Jesus. Paul exposited Scripture as well as preached a “word of exhortation.”, which comes the closest to modern day expository preaching; that is the faithful exposition of a text followed by exhortations, challenges, and calls to respond in faith and obedience. He exposited Old Testament texts that relate to the Exodus, the time of the Judges, the ministry of Samuel and the kingship of Saul, the anointing of David, and the coming of John the Baptist. Paul then pointed them to the reality of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah by quoting from Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, Psalm 16:10, Habakkuk 1:5, and Isaiah 49:6. As a herald he proclaimed the gospel of Christ in Acts 13:28-32 which states,
And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.
Johnson writes, “Thus, in Luke’s narrative this is Paul’s inaugural sermon, like Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth and Peter’s sermon on Pentecost…It also resembles Stephen’s speech in rehearsing Israel’s history…these parallels emphasize Paul’s continuity with the preachers who preceded him.” This expository sermon resulted in fulfilling the mission of reaching the lost. That Jewish congregation had never heard preaching like this before in the synagogue as evidenced by Acts 13:42: “As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath.” Paul’s expository preaching was a passionate, Christocentric, grace-filled exhortation that clearly explained and applied the Old Testament Scriptures. As a result of this preaching event, the word of the Lord spread throughout the whole region (Acts 13:49.) Thus, Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul serve as examples of leaders who motivated God’s New Covenant people to fulfill their mission by the means of an expository preaching ministry.
Many argue that we do not see any examples of expository preaching in the Bible itself, but clearly we see the expositional models of Moses, Jesus, and the early sermons in the book of Acts as effective examples worthy to be emulated by pastors today.
Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 21.
Albert Mohler, Jr., He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody Publisher, 2008), 66-67.
Mark Dever, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 36.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 23.
Abendroth, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers, 145.
Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, 125-126.
John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 126.
John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 23.
F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 91.
The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains defines it this way: “to expound the law by proclaiming and teaching its significance”. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament Volume 1 defines it as “to make clear by explaining”, 87.
H. D. M. Spence-Jones, (Ed.). Deuteronomy (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 4.
J. A. Thompson, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 97.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 88.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Volume One (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 227.
John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 45.
Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Church, Volume 1, 132.
David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers, Volume One: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 42.
J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Volume Two: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 119.
Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume V (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 97.
Peterson says, “This sermon functions as a model of Paul’s synagogue preaching…as well as being an evangelistic, it demonstrates how Christians engaged in a defence of their gospel from the Jewish Scriptures.” Peterson, Pillar Commentary on the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles, 383.
Bruce remarks, “This expression was perhaps a synagogue term for the sermon which followed the Scripture reading.” Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts, 268. This term is also used by the writer of Hebrews to refer to his epistle (Heb 13:22) which many scholars believe is an actual sermon preached to encourage believers.
Johnson, The Message of Acts, 155.