Most pastors would like to think of themselves as “biblical” preachers. We love God’s Word and recognize its authority; it’s the rare preacher who fails to acknowledge that scripture should play a prominent role in our proclamation. But what do we mean when we use the term “biblical” to define our preaching?
My sense is that most users of that term use it in the sense that their sermons analyze and explain a particular biblical text. Though definitions of exposition will vary, most emphasize a sermon that is rooted in and driven by the biblical text.
Unfortunately, many preachers have confused exposition and exegesis, not realizing that exegesis is what we do to get ready for exposition; it is not the same as exposition. Too many sermons I hear and read are really exegesis on parade rather than authentic exposition of the text.
While exegesis is an analysis of the text – studying its language, grammar, historical and cultural background – in order to understand its meaning, biblical exposition is an opening or unfolding of the text to help the listeners understand both its meaning and its implications.
As Charles Spurgeon observed, “the people in the marketplace cannot learn the language of the academy, so the people in the academy must learn the language of the marketplace. That is why the pastor’s primary task in preaching is to translate.”
That process of translation is true exposition. Exposition is the process of taking the results of our exegetical study and fashioning it for understanding – shaping a message in such a way that the people can understand this biblical truth for themselves and then recognize how it applies to their own lives.
As you do exegesis to better understand a passage in preparation for preaching, you will discover a load of information on the historical background of the text, the grammatical issues, various interpretive questions, and so on. In fact, if you do a thorough job of study you could speak for hours about that text; that’s why one of the most important skills in preaching is the ability to prune and edit. A good chef doesn’t take all the materials used in preparing the meal and put them on the dining table; the chef uses those materials in the kitchen so that he or she can set the table with just the right meal.
Thus, the task of the preacher is to analyze and understand the meaning and purpose of the biblical text so that he can do the task of translation – shaping a message that helps the listener understand the essential truth contained in that text and how that truth impacts his or her life. Expository preaching builds on exegesis, but it must be far more than simply the oral presentation of the results of our exegetical study. It must explain and illustrate biblical truth as it applies to our lives.
Does that sound insufficiently “biblical” to you? Then you are likely to be uncomfortable with the preaching found in scripture. Look at virtually every sermon in the New Testament – from Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to Paul’s address to the elders in Pisidian Antioch – and you’ll see a message dominated by application.
When Paul talks to his protégé Timothy about preaching, he summarizes the task: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV). Those three imperatives – “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” – are clearly applicational in nature. They all call for preaching that applies the truth of God’s Word to the lives of the listeners.
And that captures the purpose of preaching. We preach the scriptures for the same reason that God gave the scriptures: to mature and equip believers, to call them to repent, to respond, to obey. In other words, application is not a peripheral element of preaching, or one more task for the sermon among several; application is the very heart of the preaching task.
Application in preaching takes the life principle found in the biblical text and builds a bridge from the ancient context to the contemporary situation. My argument is not that we must have application in our sermons; that is a given. What I am arguing for is that we recognize that application is the purpose and basis for the preaching of God’s Word. A biblically-informed understanding of expository preaching is that it is the anointed application of a biblical text to the lives of the listeners.
We must not think of preaching as an analysis of a biblical text with some application attached; we should understand the expository sermon is the application of a biblical principle derived from a biblical text. We do not do biblical preaching to make people better Bible students; we do biblical exposition in order to help our listeners understand how God intends them to apply biblical truth to their lives.
That doesn’t mean preaching “10 Steps to a Happy Life” sermons that are only loosely connected to the biblical text. It means looking at our task as preachers from a different perspective – not as professors in the classroom, imparting abstract truths, but as shepherds and fellow strugglers unpacking a text to understand what God would have us do with this truth. Those sermons will certainly impact practical life issues, but they will also be deeply theological if we are true to the text. They will deal with the nature of God, the meaning of grace, the work of the Spirit and so much more.
The Bible is God’s revealed truth in the form of both doctrinal and applicational truth. And if we want to be faithful to our calling, we must recognize that we have not been called to transmit information but to transform lives through the anointing of the Holy Spirit as He empowers the preaching of the Word. As David Jeremiah observes, “People don’t need a better set of notes – they need to know how the Word of God is going to work in their lives.”