What is Expository Preaching?

Expository PreachingI suppose the type of person who reads this sort of blog would, in general, be sympathetic to the notion of “Expository Preaching”. All the cool kids are doing it these days. All the people the cool kids listen to say it’s the only way to be faithful to Scripture and preach the full counsel of God. I must say, I pretty much agree (I’m cool like that). It seems, though, that the term and its meaning have become somewhat removed from one another.

Popular Parlance

When I hear the words “expository preaching”, the idea that is usually being expressed is that of a pastor preaching section by section (perhaps even verse by verse) through a chunk of the Bible – whether that chunk be Jude, Isaiah or Genesis 1-12). The point is, expository preaching is defined by what the sermon was on last week and what it will be on next week.

It’s great to do series through books. It can truly help people understand what the book as a whole is really about and knowing what’s coming could (in theory) enable people to read and think ahead for sermons that are still to come. That sort of engagement is, and would be, fantastic but honestly, it’s rare.

infrequentSomething for preachers to consider is the fact that today people consider themselves regular church attendees if they go once in six weeks – twice every three months. That’s not going to do much for continuity. What’s more, among those who attend every week, how many can tell you what the text of the sermon was from the previous week, never mind the main points? It’s terribly naive to believe that the average member of your congregation is reading ahead because you’re moving consecutively through a book.

Technical Meaning

What may be a surprise to many is that, technically, expository preaching is actually not about preaching section by section consecutively through a book or portion of Scripture. It’s not about what came last week and what will come next week. In actual fact, “expository” preaching is about “exposition”.

“Exposition” means that if you arrive at my sermon today and never hear anything else I preach, you should go away understanding this passage. Exposition is about presenting and explaining the idea or message embedded in the passage of the day. Exposition is an attempt to read the Bible in such a way as to understand it correctly.

Mary Poppins: I Never Explain AnythingIf we open our Bibles to Jeremiah 29:11, good exposition will guard us against thinking that we are ancient Israelites living in Babylonian exile. Good exposition will, however, also move us to the theological significance of a passage that promises prosperity. Good exposition will make sense to us today of a promise given thousands of years ago to a nation of people living in exile.

That means that if we’re wondering whether preachers (or even we ourselves) preach expositionally, the question is not, what was the sermon on last week. The question is, does the sermon make sense of the passage in the context of its place in the book and its place in the Bible and is whatever application stems out of that. The key is that such application is grounded in the meaning and message of the text.

Expositionally Topical

I often hear derision at the idea of topical sermons. I think we have even used to use preaching styles (expository vs topical) as a litmus test; demarcating conservatives and liberals. To be fair, “topical” preaching can be a facile excuse for an appalling use of Scripture. Essentially though, “topical vs expositional” is a false distinction. We could hear a series of sermons on humility (a topic!) taken from John 13, Philippians 2 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 and be listening to excellent exposition because humility is a major teaching point when each text is rightly understood. In contrast, I have heard plenty of sermons from consecutive passages that hardly dig into the meaning of the text at all, whose applications have little or nothing to do with the text in its context. However, “biblical” that sort of sermon may be, it’s not helping me understand the Bible.

The real question to ask of our preaching and our preachers is whether or not they are helping us understand the text. Exposition is an attempt to do exactly that: beware of false imitations.

Does Barabbas’ Release Illustrate Substitution?

Roman Trial‘When Jesus is held back for execution and Barabbas is set free we have a wonderful picture of substitution.’ Have you heard that before? I have. Perhaps you have even explained this element of Jesus’ trial as an illustration of his place-taking death, which secures release for the guilty. Again, I have. But after working carefully through John’s Gospel in our small groups this year, I am convinced that I was wrong. Substitution is not in view; it is not even an ancillary aspect of Barabbas’ release.

Similarly to Paul’s ‘living sacrifices’ in Romans 12 – which preachers readily tell us is a strikingly strange picture, when really it is not since all sacrifices would be brought to the alter alive (Jonathan More) – we give little thought to this passage in its literary context, hurriedly sharing the pre-packaged theology of substitutionary atonement and old sermons. However, with only a little digging into John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is not pictured as a substitute for Barabbas. Obviously, Jesus is introduced to us by John the Baptizer as, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36). Added to this, substitution is clear at points throughout the narrative: Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep (10:11) and his friends (15:13), perhaps in response to Peter’s predictably overzealous promise that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37); Caiaphas’ ironic prophecy that it is better for one man to die than for Israel to perish (11:50; 18:14); and Jesus commitment to drain the cup of God’s wrath on the cross (18:11). But Jesus’ messiahship is more than dying on behalf of God’s people.

Interwoven with Jesus’ identification as Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is his authority and power that demands a response from the Jewish nation. As C. H. Dodd has said, in The Founder of Christianity, “zero hour” was upon Israel; “God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.” When Pilate presents Barabbas and Jesus (18:39), offering the customary release of a prisoner at Passover, the opportunity and choice reaches its climax. And when they cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” they reject God’s King (18:40).

Andreas Köstenberger, in his essay “What is Truth?”, suggests that a prominent Johannine theme is the trial motif. He proposes that while there is no Jewish trial recorded in John’s Gospel, we can view John’s first twelve chapters as a trial. Jesus comes before the nation of Israel and powerfully demonstrates his divine sonship and authority. Israel is confronting her God. He has come to his own (1:11), full of grace and truth (1:17), fully revealing Yahweh in fleshly glory (1:14, 18). From John’s prologue, the reader knows who Jesus is. And a little later Nathaniel proclaims, “The King of Israel” (1:49). Now, if we return to the Jewish leaders, clamouring in the streets outside of Pilate’s headquarters, we see what John’s purpose is: Will they recognise God’s Messiah? There is immense irony in Pilate’s antagonistic epithet, “The King of the Jews” (18:39). For Jesus truly is.

Roman TrialBut there is more to it. There is an even more striking irony in the Roman trial and the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus. Quoting D. A. Carson, in The Gospel of John, “The chief priests, who would normally have nothing to do with Zealots and…armed rebellion,” request the release of an enemy of Rome over one whom Rome deemed unthreatening (18:36-38). Pilate, in the obverse, and similarly to the Jews, fears for his political position, releases a man who was declared guilty by Rome for murder and insurrection. His conscience and superiors may have allowed him to condemn an innocent man without impunity, but surely releasing a known rebel reveals a lack of political savvy. Finally, the Jews, after rejecting their Messiah in favour of a convicted criminal, exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Köstenberger notes that this is a pyrrhic success for the Jewish leaders, for in gaining Pilate’s concession they have pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor. Confronted by the Son of God the Jews make their choice and it is not God’s Messiah.

Doodle: ‘He’s not Safe, but He’s Good’

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - LewisThe number of times I have heard that line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the pulpit defies reason. I say this namely because I cannot remember a single sermon where the respective preacher used it to shed any light. It has been, in my own experience, tantamount to invoking the term “social construct” in debates, as if that settled anything. But if that is not reason enough, then its sheer abuse should convince us that it might be time to lay Mr Beaver’s epithet to rest (see Sammy Rhodes’ article on retiring sermon clichés). Lewis’ dangerous but good Aslan is somewhat opaque and seriously overused. Every time I hear it I struggle not to conclude that the only time the preacher reads is when he is trying to put his children to sleep.

This is obviously a theme in Lewis’ magisterial Narnia; when the children first meet Aslan we are told, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, when Mr Beaver is warning the children against pressing Aslan or tying him to their kingdom he says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion” (p194). They are moving words for those familiar with Aslan, and inadvertently the God of Scripture, but used alone and apart from the context of Lewis’ work such sentiments are little more than mere sentimentalism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rich narrative that boasts compelling truth, evokes genuine feeling, and draws the reader into another world in a way few novels achieve. But we are fooling ourselves if we think a few quotes about Aslan’s indomitable but inviting nature do any justice to Lewis’ intention, or assist our own.

There is so much more to the novel (and all of Narnia) than these almost common quotes convey. Let me offer an example, which I would love to unpack further in a sermon or writing, touching on John’s Gospel. While the Witch gloats in Aslan’s death, to redeem Edmund and restore Narnia, some of Jesus’ last words before the cross come to mind, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). A little later the Lord says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:30-31). Before Susan and Lucy the supposed King of Narnia is shamefully shorn and cruelly slain on the Stone Table, and before Jesus’ disciples their supposed Messiah is mocked and executed; both events suggest the triumph of evil and the defeat of good. But hear Aslan’s words when the astonished sisters ask Aslan what (can only be described as) his resurrection means, “Though the Witch knew Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). In his surrender to the evil powers of the world, he overcomes them.

Lord of the Rings - TolkienFinally, if that brief and slightly shoddy unpacking has not excited you to revisit Narnia then, please, for the sake of your congregation, drop Lewis’ overdone words; I will even provide you with a sacrificial substitute, from The Lord of the Rings. After Gandalf retells how he saw, and was indeed spotted by Treebeard, in the forest, Gimli remarks, ‘You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless’.