by Michael Cooper
Since the inception of the Church on the day of Pentecost, the “sermon” has been a central part to the worship experience. The history of the sermon is quite intriguing. The communication of ancient wisdom and tradition passed down and delivered into the hearts and minds of the congregation is the task of the preacher. The preacher’s responsibility is to proclaim “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” However, in our culture, preaching a sermon is often a lost art and practice. Many churches prefer “conversations” as opposed to an outright monologue.
Now, we must be honest with ourselves. Just think about the ridiculous nature of preaching for a moment. People take an hour or so out of their week to listen to an oral presentation from an ancient book that contains documents that are over 2,000 years old. Now, why would one subject themselves to such torment? No doctor is suggesting that they should return back to the methods of Hippocratic medicine. We have advanced beyond the knowledge of ancient Greece. So why would a preacher suggest that we govern our lives by the writing of ancient Israel?
Perhaps this is because most preaching today is not really “preaching the ancient wisdom” but more along the lines of motivation and self-help. We’ve advanced beyond preaching a sermon. Our culture is driven by “tweets” that contain no more than 140 characters, therefore, in order to communicate information, our preaching must contain one-liners, quick turns of phrase, and “5 Simple Ways to (_fill in the blank_).” In the busyness of our day, many feel that they don’t have the time to sit and listen to an oral presentation for 30-45 minutes.
In light of this reality, the “sermon” is reduced down to the equivalent of a McDonald’s Dollar Menu burger. It’s quick, easy, and cheap. It will fill you up for a bit but after a while, you will need something more filling. You can only live off one-dollar burgers for so long until you begin to get sick.
The Need for More Substance
This is why I advocate for an unusual, counter-cultural form of preaching. Preaching that pushes against the age of Facebook and Twitter. Preaching that isn’t a dollar-menu burger but a juicy steak. Preaching that takes the Bible seriously. Preaching that corrects the sickness of most preaching.
Expository preaching goes against many of the norms of our culture. This type of preaching places emphasis upon the ancient text as it seeks to deliver and unpack the meaning of a particular text to the modern congregation. This is not a dry, dusty lecture that you would find in the classrooms of a university. The preacher simply explains what the text means. Dr. Albert Mohler provides a definition for expository preaching:
“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. As the word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and message of the biblical text and makes clear how the word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God.”
Did you catch it? The biblical text informs the substance and structure of a sermon, not the other way around. The sermon does not and should not inform the substance and structure of the biblical text. The sermon is not ultimate, the Bible is ultimate because God is ultimate. Mohler continues,
“Moreover, because the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, the shape of the biblical text is also therefore divinely directed. God has spoken through the inspired human authors of Scripture, and each different genre of biblical literature demands that the preacher give careful attention to the text, allowing it to shape the message. Far too many preachers come to the text with a sermonic shape in mind and a limited set of tools in hand. To be sure, the shape of the sermon may differ from preacher to preacher and should differ from text to text. But genuine exposition demands that the text establish the shape as well as the substance of the sermon.”
Expositional preaching provides substance. Thus, the goal of expositional preaching is allowing the Bible to speak on its own terms. God has spoken, therefore, as a preacher, you are called to communicate what God has already said and not what you want to say.
The Demands and Benefits of Expositional Preaching
As a pastor, your “job” can be difficult. The up’s and down’s of ministry can be trying. Yet, you are called to preach. Specifically, to preach the Bible. This will demand something of the preacher.
First, it will demand that the preacher actually reads the Bible. You would think that this is a given. But in order for a sermon to be “produced,” the preacher must give himself, both mind and soul, to the Written Word. Grammar, syntax, historical context, theology, and much more demand the attention of the preacher.
Second, it will demand the preacher’s time. Expositional preaching requires the time of the preacher. The preacher should take time in developing a sermon as he takes time to read the Bible. His study is his lab, his workshop. He must give himself to study. Whether the preacher knows it or not, he is entering into a conversation with the ancient text. He asks questions of the text and the text asks questions of him.
Third, it will demand that the preacher wrestle with ideas. This is related to the preacher’s study time and conversation. If the preacher is concerned with allowing the Bible to speak, the Bible will challenge the preacher to wrestle its ideas. Not only is the preacher in conversation with the ideas of the Bible but he also must be in conversation with culture. The preacher lives between two worlds: the world of the Bible and the world of his culture. Living between these two worlds will result in him wrestling with the ideas of the Bible and his culture. Churchill once said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” Ideas shape people. Therefore, the preacher must wrestle with the ideas that attempt to establish the empires within the mind.
In my opinion, though, the benefits outweigh the demands.
First, expositional preaching challenges the rampant epidemic of biblical illiteracy. Our churches are filled with individuals who simply don’t know the Bible. Since they don’t know the Bible, they don’t know what God requires of them. The role of the preacher is to unpack the Bible, teaching the congregation how to read it. This is the most practical way to fight illiteracy.
Second, expositional preaching gives direction to the preacher week after week. If the preacher begins preaching verse-by-verse through books, he knows what text he must give himself to each week. For example, the preacher takes Ephesians 1:3-6 this week, he will take Ephesians 1:7-12 the next week. This helps safeguard the tendency to take short-cuts and employ proof-texting.
Lastly, expositional preaching communicates that the authority of the Church is not man but God and his Word. This type of preaching places an emphasis upon the authority of the inspired text. The preacher does not have authority by himself. As he begins to explain the meaning of a particular text, he can declare what God has already communicated authoritatively. The Word of God is central, not the word of man.
The Danger of Expositional Preaching
The great Baptist preacher John Broadus once said, “Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean.” Which means simply, we don’t determine the meaning of what we want the Bible to say. God determined that when he inspired the authors of the Bible to write their particular books. However, I must warn you. The simple exposition of God’s Word is dangerous to a congregation. Why, you might ask?
The unfolding of the Word of God is a challenge to its hearers. Since the Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword,” the Word cuts down. As Paul commanded Timothy, “Preach the Word” because it “teaches, reproves, corrects, trains” the hearers of the Word. Since the Word cuts, this demands that the preacher uses his gifts much like a surgeon uses his talents in handling a scalpel. A surgeon doesn’t stab the patient with a scalpel nor does he gently stroke the patient’s skin. But with the proper technique, the surgeon uses the scalpel to do its intended work. The preacher, with the proper technique, uses the Bible for its intended work.
Handling something so sharp is dangerous since it results in teaching, reproving, correcting, and training the congregation in righteousness. But take heart. The demands and benefits of expository preaching far outweigh our reluctance. Therefore, give yourself to the dangerous task of expository preaching.
Michael Cooper is Preaching Pastor of Grace Community Church in Mabank, Texas. He also serves at Criswell College where he is pursuing a M.A. in Theological Studies. Most importantly, he is the husband of Kailie and father of Sophia.