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Expository Preaching: A Dying Craft

The seven churches of Revelation, to which Jesus through John delivered both individual and personal messages, represent seven literal churches. Most Bible scholars see these messages as representing (1) seven types of churches that would manifest themselves during the Church Age at any given time, and (2) the seven consecutive eras of Church history, culminating in the coming of Christ. The Laodicean church is the era in which we live. The most remarkable trait of the Laodicean church is the Lord Jesus himself on the outside, standing and knocking at the door, desiring entry into his own church. One reason why Jesus, the embodiment of truth, is on the outside is the virtual absence of truth on the inside. Pulpits in this nation have all but abandoned the exposition of truth. Expository preaching is a dying craft.

How did this dearth of exegetical-expository preaching become the norm? First, the proliferation of  watered-down Bible translations has managed to eviscerate the venerable King James of its theological and doctrinal themes. The KJV, with an almost slavish faithfulness to the original text, demands some discipline while doing the excavation work of researching etymologies, grammar, syntax, verb tenses et al. Such painstaking study rewards a student with interpretive gems. But serendipitous translations and paraphrases that 'dumb down' scripture for 'easy reading' often sacrifice key theological concepts in the process. 

Secondly, seminaries and Bible colleges often fail to teach young preachers expository skills. During a three- or four-year course, students usually get their OT and NT survey courses along with a handful of electives. Professors typically teach from a course outline, discuss content from 30,000 feet and then  require students to reproduce course notes on exams. When the graduate gets to his first church, he is often dependent on commentaries written by other men for his 'insights' and illustrations. It may be that there was a mentor in his past to serve as an example of the expository craft. But such men are the exception rather than the rule. It is even possible for a KJV loyalist to be virtually exposition-free and think he's actually 'preaching the word' by embellishing KJV text with a plethora of illustrations and stories. Even sheep in a KJV church can starve spiritually for a lack of Bible exposition.

Paul's admonition to Timothy, as a pastor-preacher, is encapsulated in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be instant, in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” The Word Timothy had at his disposal consisted primarily of OT scriptures – the Torah, Historical books, Psalms, Proverbs and Prophets – and what Paul taught him concerning the revelation of Jesus Christ. Therefore the content of Timothy's preaching would have consisted of OT texts as a platform to preach Christ and godly living. As NT books were penned, copied, circulated and accepted as part of the canon of inspired text, so would the boundaries of that Word expand. 

The essence of expository preaching has roots in the OT. Nehemiah took this responsibility seriously, as revealed in Nehemiah 8:8: “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” The adverb “distinctly” means “to distinguish or define, to separate.” Nehemiah provided, in addition to reading the text of scripture, an analysis that broke down the law into its individual components, distinguished them. He “gave the sense” of those things he defined. The word “sense” means “understanding, insight.” As he broke down and separated out the elements of the inspired text along with insights, he “caused them to understand the reading.” In other words, the people learned from Nehemiah WHAT the word meant and HOW to apply it to their daily lives, both as a nation and as individuals. In expository preaching, it is NEVER enough to impart mere knowledge of a text. That knowledge MUST be accompanied by an element of wisdom – insight on how truth learned translates into truth obeyed. This is what Nehemiah did. 

Another biblical word that supports the expository concept is “expound.” We find the first usage of this word, and the only OT usage, in Judges 14. Samson told this riddle to thirty Philistine men: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (14:14). The scripture says that after three days of effort, they could not “expound” the riddle. The Hebrew nagad means “to front, expose, make known.” Think of a student sitting in the back of a classroom being asked by the teacher to come to the 'front' of the class to read something. In 'front' of the class, the student can now be seen easily by other students. The thirty Philistine men were unable to bring the enigmatic meaning of the riddle to the forefront of their thinking. Expository preaching does just that – brings the underlying truths of the biblical text to the forefront of a congregation's thinking. 

The Lord Jesus himself is said to have “expounded” the scriptures as well as his own parables (Mark 4:34; Luke 24:7). The word “expounded” in Mark 4:34 is epiluo, “to unlose or untie what is knotted or sealed up, to explain.” The verb is imperfect tense, signifying ongoing activity. It suggests that perhaps the disciples needed more than a one-time explanation before 'getting' it. So must expository preachers be persistent, repetitious if needed, to ensure the sheep 'get' what God is saying through the scriptures.

On the road to Emaeus, Jesus employed Moses (Torah), the prophets et al and “expounded” to two of his disciples things concerning himself (Luke 24:27). The word is diermeneuo, a combination of dia (“through”) and hermenueo (“to expound, interpret, translate what has been spoken or written in a foreign language into the vernacular”). Our Eng. 'hermeneutics' (science of interpretation) comes from this root. The verb is imperfect, signifying an ongoing interpretive session during the long walk to Emaeus. Like his Lord, the expository preacher is tasked with taking the language of scripture and breaking it down, thoroughly interpreting it, so the people of God can consume it. How long has it been since you heard a truly interpretive message from the Word of God? 

After Jesus parted from the two disciples, they said to one another: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened up to us the scriptures?” (24:32). Here is yet another dynamic in genuine expository preaching. The 'burn' was the result of Holy Ghost power that mingled itself with our Lord's interpretive content. When true expository preaching takes place, hearers will feel a burning while they're learning. The mandate for expository preaching is literally 'learn and burn'. When was the last time you sat in a church pew that was a learning and burning environment? 

The book of Acts tells us Aquila and Priscilla “expounded” the way of the Lord more perfectly unto a Jew named Apollos (18:26). The apostle Paul “expounded” to Jews at Rome things concerning “the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning to evening” (28:23). The verb in both instances is ektithemi, a combination of ek (“out of”) and tithemi (“to place, put”). It is imperfect tense. For twelve hours, Paul kept on 'putting out' in open view the meaning of scripture that confirmed Jesus was Messiah. Here we see two more characteristics of 'learn and burn' expository preaching. First, it is meant to persuade. Secondly, Paul's audience was willing to give a whole day of their time to soak it up. This is not a proof-text to justify long-winded preaching (see Acts 20:7, where Paul preached till midnight). But it's a poor reflection on both pulpit and pew in the modern era when a 30-minute ditty is about all a congregation can endure. 

Expository preaching is legitimate work. The man of God who gives himself to the study of the Word and prayer, attends to the flock and does the work of an evangelist, making full proof of his ministry, is worth his salt and earns his keep (2 Timothy 4:5). His congregation will be blessed, fed and grown as he digs up and exposes spiritual nuggets week-by-week in 'learn and burn' fashion. I wish I could say most churches have this kind of pulpit ministry. But, alas, expository preaching is a dying craft!



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