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Summer 2006, Vol. 3, No. 1

Expository Preaching: Part 1—Nature and Importance

George O. Wood, D.Th.P.
General Secretary, Assemblies of God

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I grew up as an MK, PK and EK (missionary’s, pastor’s and evangelist’s kid) in the Assemblies of God. My parents moved often. I don’t want to count the number of different schools I attended. The longest my family stayed in any one place was about two and a half years. Most of the other stops were shorter.

Although called to the ministry myself, I did not want an itinerant lifestyle. My goal was to find roots, locate one place and remain in it.

While attending seminary, I picked up an issue of Christianity Todayc. The lead article focused on W. E. Criswell and his twenty-fifth anniversary as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Asked the reason for his longevity in one pastorate, Criswell replied, “Expository preaching.” Upon arriving at First Baptist, he began preaching from Genesis 1:1 and, throughout those 25 years, had journeyed straight through the Bible to the end of the Book of Revelation.

I was amazed and intrigued. Criswell said the Bible was inexhaustible and, if you preached it, you wouldn’t run out of things to say. I thought to myself, If that’s how I can stay in one church for a long time, I’m going to be an expository preacher also.

That was a poor motive for getting into expository preaching. I soon found there were many good reasons. I did not try to copy Criswell in journeying through the Bible from cover to cover. I took a Bible book at a time, in a non-sequential order, as I felt the Spirit leading me. Nevertheless, I did stay 17 years in my one and only pastorate.

I had an interesting beginning. Maybe 60 people were at my tryout sermon. I had my best sermon all polished and ready to go, but as I sat on the platform through the early part of the service, I felt the Holy Spirit telling me to lay it aside (a rare event for me) and simply step to the pulpit and quote Scripture. I had committed to memory about 45 minutes of the Gospel narratives on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I argued with this impulse. I hadn’t reviewed my memorized passages in a couple of weeks. What if my mind blanked out? They would think me a fool. On the other hand, if I did successfully remember and deliver my memorized life of Jesus, they would think I was showing off.

I had to make a decision as I stepped behind the pulpit. I opened my mouth and out came, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I continued quoting the entire prologue of John’s Gospel. People opened their Bibles, expecting me to begin preaching from that text, but I was quickly out of John into Luke 2, the birth narrative. From there, I went on to Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the wedding at Cana and so on. After about 10 minutes, a holy hush began to descend on us. People put away their Bibles and began to listen. (The power of the spoken Word itself–without explication or explanation–rivets hearts.) I finished the sermon with Isaiah 53, the interpretative overlay for the mission of Christ, and sat down. In 45 minutes, I had never said one word of my own. I had not greeted the people. I had not introduced my family. I had spoken only God’s Word.

That tryout sermon was a prophetic tip-off to what the Lord wanted of me as a pastor to those people. He wanted me to take his Word and break it as the bread for life.

My first expository series–from John’s Gospel­–lasted about six months­. I was straight out of a college classroom context, and those dear people had to suffer greatly from my bookish approach to Scripture. I had 100 percent good exegesis, hermeneutical aptitude and almost no practical relevance! Thank the Lord for good, gentle lay people who encourage young ministers just out of school–bold confident preachers who have all the answers without knowing any of the questions!

My series in John did not draw crowds. Nevertheless, Criswell’s article remained to me as north on the compass, a fixed guideline for assuring pastoral longevity. As I drew near to the end of John, I prayed about the next series and felt the Holy Spirit impressing me to preach through Leviticus. I must say, at the time, I wasn’t for sure this prompting was from the Spirit or from craziness. I protested: “Lord, this is a boring book. When people make New Year’s resolutions to read the Bible through, their wagons of intention break down in the wilderness of Leviticus.” In addition, I am not an allegorical preacher and was not about to get into fanciful interpretations of the color of threads in the tabernacle. How could Leviticus be relevant?

Still, the impression remained, “Preach through Leviticus.” My trump card was Leviticus 15. I said, “Lord, I can’t even read that chapter in public (it deals with bodily emissions), let alone preach from it.” I felt the Lord say to me, “Start with chapter 1, and when you get to chapter 15, I’ll show you what to do with it.”

Reluctantly, I began. In introducing the series to the congregation I said, “We are going to find out practically if 2 Timothy 3:16 is actually true: ‘ All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’” Please don’t fault me here. My theological conviction is firm that 2 Timothy 3:16 is true regardless of my experience. However, our unwillingness to preach from whole segments of the Bible speaks louder about our confidence in Scripture than our mental affirmation of doctrine.

The five offerings of Leviticus 1 through 7 opened powerfully before me week after week as they addressed human need and God’s answers. Incredibly, the church began to grow. I guess word must have gotten around that a young preacher in this hard-to-find A-frame church, was preaching from, of all things, the Book of Leviticus, and it was making sense. Months later, when I finished Leviticus, I was preaching to 300 people rather than the 100 who were in the pews when the series began.

What happened to Leviticus 15?

My weekly pattern of sermon preparation was:   Monday, day of study and exegesis for the sermons to be preached that week; Tuesday morning, more study; Wednesday morning, putting the outline together with supporting illustrations and finishing Wednesday night’s message; Thursday, all day completing preparation for Sunday’s sermons. In short, about 24 hours of every workweek was given over to sermon preparation. The balance of the time went to pastoral leadership, administration, visitation or whatever. This pattern almost never varied over the length of 17 years in pasturing, except for weeks I had guest speakers.

If you do not spend a significant amount of your time in preparation, you will not feed your flock. And, if the flock is not fed, they will start eating you and their fellow church members.

Scholar Richard Israel of Yale University told of the elders of a little Eastern European community coming to their rabbi to tell him how concerned they were about his health. Studying the sacred texts 20 hours a day was just too much for him, they protested.

The rabbi responded, “I really have no alternative. If I study 20 hours a day, you will study 14 hours a day. If you study 14 hours a day, the students in the academy will study 12 hours a day. If they do that, then the householders of the village will come to the synagogue three times a day to say their prayers. If our simple householders pray three times a day, then the merchants who pass through our village will be embarrassed not to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath; and if the merchants go to the synagogue every Sabbath, then I know that Rothschild will be in the synagogue for the Day of Atonement!” This rabbi had wisely understood the power of personal example influencing the behavior of those to whom he ministered!

My fundamental duty as a pastor is to preach the Word. My secondary duties may include administration, promotion, overseeing development of physical facilities and visitation. However, unless I give the preaching of the Word my first priority, the heart of the church has collapsed.

The heart is a pump. God has ordained that through the preaching of the Word, a constant supply of spiritual life and power be pumped into the church, His people. Churches die when the pastor has nothing from God to say to the people. The congregation may be in a beautiful building; the educational, social, and organizational emphasis may be superb; but unless the pulpit rings with a vibrant word from God, that church has a terminal illness. The illness may be short or long, but eventually death is sure to result. The study of God’s Word must be at the top of my personal priorities if I expect members of my congregation to have it as one of theirs.

Back to Leviticus 15. I came to my office at 8 o’clock that Monday morning, sat down at my desk and opened my Bible to Leviticus 15. Before ever cracking the commentaries, I always take time to look at the Scripture without any aids. It is just the Bible and I. That morning I said, “Lord, it’s the week of Leviticus 15. You told me you would show me what to do when I got here. Well, I’m here.” Instantly, as I read the text, the Holy Spirit dropped this sermon title into my heart, “A Very Personal God.” Titles for sermons are invariably difficult for me and usually they never come until the end of the sermon preparation process. However, here was the title before I had done the exegesis, sermon structure or illustrations!

That Sunday, I read Leviticus 15 to a very quiet audience. I can assure you that if you read that chapter publicly your audience will also be quiet. I began, “Many of you think God is remote. He’s called the Man Upstairs. You may think He is far removed from your personal world and cares. You may feel He doesn’t even know you exist. Well, this chapter tells you that God knows you rather well. He designed your plumbing system. If He knows even those details about you, you can be assured He knows the rest of your life also.”

Why do I relate these personal experiences? Because the best definition of preaching I ever heard was “Preaching is you.” It is the divine communication of truth through your human personality. None of us will preach exactly the same way from any given text, but those who “preach the Word” will find the Lord at work in their own life and the lives of the people they pastor.

What is expository preaching? It involves taking a block of Scripture (a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, a book) and answering two questions: (1) What did it say? and (2) What does it say? In answering those two questions, the proposition, main points and sub-points of the message are controlled by the text itself. In topical preaching, the preacher can choose his or her own outline. In textual preaching, the main points are controlled by the text, and the preacher can fill in whatever he or she feels led. In expository preaching, the text totally controls the content of the message. One is not free to hunt or pick what he or she wants to emphasize or ignore.

Let’s consider the two questions above. To preach expositorily, I must answer both. Question one, “What did it say?” involves exegesis and hermeneutics. I want to understand as best I can what each word or phrase meant to the biblical writer and to the people of God to whom this word first came. Thus, I hit the Bible dictionaries, lexicons, concordance and commentaries to better understand this text.

Too often we want to skip the hard task of really understanding the Scripture in order to get immediately to the application. This is one reason why we often skip difficult parts in Scripture (such as Leviticus).

No sermon is complete, however, if we have answered the first question only. We must also consider, “What does it say?” In order words, I must move past exegesis to application. How does this ancient living Word relate to the contemporary needs of persons to whom I will preach?

Preaching must always involve one foot planted firmly in exegesis and the other in application. Sermons will be dry as chips if only exegetic. Exegesis tells what the Scripture said; application, what it says.

Many a congregation has been put to sleep by a sermon that never made it into the here and now of experience. It becomes a very dry dull history lesson. However, sermons that neglect exegesis for the sake of application will eventually produce a biblically illiterate congregation, prey to false winds of doctrine and the gales of satanic adversity. Generally, if a sermon fails to interest, inspire or challenge, the preacher did not answer one or both of these questions.

Phillips Brooks, the great American preacher of another generation, so aptly said, “No exhortation to a good life that does not put behind it some truth as deep as eternity can seize and hold the conscience.”

Paul told Timothy to keep “the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Timothy 1:13). Essentially, Paul was saying he followed a system of teaching. His preaching-teaching methods had not consisted of isolated pieces of information and scattered spiritual exhortations. One has only to read Paul to detect how orderly he is.

In Bible study, a person is not well advised to try a hop-and-skip method. If a person reads a chapter in Romans one day, switches to a part of Revelation the next, and goes back to Exodus the following day and continues this random procedure for long periods, he or she is not going to profit from his study.

If the above comments are true about personal study, they also apply to preaching. Does my preaching carry on the systematic exposition of truth? Am I giving forth a pattern of sound words? Should there not be a relationship between last week’s sermons and this week’s? Last month’s and this month’s? Or even last year’s and this year’s?

Some feel that following a sermon plan wherein the preacher takes weeks or months to sequentially “walk” the flock through a book in the Bible actually inhibits the Holy Spirit. “Aren’t you ruling out the leading of the Spirit?” they ask. Not at all, unless your view of the Spirit means that everything He does must be instantaneously spontaneous.

I believe the Spirit can give me direction for a whole series just as easily as He can for one message. Nevertheless, I must never be inflexible. If, in the midst of a series, the Holy Spirit puts upon my heart some special word, I have no hesitation to interrupt the series.

I have found great advantages in expository preaching for both the church and myself.

1. Over time, the congregation is exposed to the totality of God’s Word. If I preach just “how to do it” messages (making a marriage work, rearing children, being financially secure, becoming a success, defeating stress), I will completely omit essential truths upon God’s heart. On the other hand, if I faithfully preach the Word, I will address all of people’s felt needs of people because God’s Word is fantastically relevant.

Preaching through major blocks of Scripture forces me to address subjects I would not choose, but God has ordained to be considered. Such exposure of the people to God’s Word will ground their faith, not in the opinions of men, hobbyhorse doctrines or latest fads, but in God’s written revelation. If you get your people into the Word, you will get the Word into your people.

2. Spiritual maturity is built. In the past 20 years, the Pentecostal/Charismatic world has been through extremes in discipleship emphasis, fascination with coughing up demons, health/wealth gospel, dominion theology—you name it. All during this time, I kept preaching the Bible systematically to our people. We lost almost no one to these elements of “charismania.” Why? Our people had been grounded in the Word. They had become accustomed to having Scripture dealt with in context, line-by-line, word-by-word. They could smell a Scripture-twister a mile off. They knew when someone was lifting a text out of context and distorting it.

In our emphasis on revival, we must never forget that the first hallmark of an apostolic church is commitment to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). How can people become grounded in the teaching of the apostles if all they get is someone’s latest revelation? Expository preaching helps our people not become prey to every wind of doctrine.

3. All the issues God wants dealt with are dealt with in God’s time. I have never ceased to be amazed at how God would apply a sermon with a series at the just the right time of need for either the congregation or an individual in it. A runaway found herself in our church one Sunday evening. I “so happened” to be in a series on the Ten Commandments. Which commandment did I preached from the night that girl wandered into our midst and was saved? “Honor your father and mother.”

I think of the second series I did on Leviticus, ten years after the first. My text that Sunday was from chapters 13 and 14—a lengthy passage on leprosy. I explained to the congregation that the biblical word leprosy embraced many skin conditions, including psoriasis. I didn’t know that a local community college professor and his wife were visiting the church that morning or that he had a long-standing and painful condition of psoriasis that was untreatable and inoperable. This couple comes in, and hears a minister preaching on the theme, “What Your Skin Is Telling You About God.” How odd, but peculiarly relevant!

If I were simply selecting what I wanted to preach on week by week, I would have never chosen Leviticus 13 and 14. However, the Lord knew this couple would be there that Sunday. They were so intrigued, they came back the next Sunday. At the close of the service, they responded to the altar call, and God healed him instantly.

Preaching expositorily gave me great liberty to deal with sensitive matters. The congregation knew I wasn’t personally picking on them when I came to a text that was uncomfortable to them. This wasn’t a preacher’s opinion; it was God’s. The preacher hadn’t singled them out; the passage simply fell open to them that day because that’s where the pastor was in his journey through that book in the Bible.

4. Expository preaching builds a sense of reliability. Persons in our congregation knew they could bring unsaved family and friends to the service and they would not be surprised by an unprepared rambling sermon. Often in Pentecostal circles, we almost venerate unpredictability. I think we need to place more emphasis on predictability. Our people knew where to open their Bibles when it came time for the sermon.

In fact, as our church grew, people often identified their entry into the church by the text I was in that Sunday. “Oh, pastor I came to church first when you were in Romans 8.”

If there are advantages in expository preaching for the church, the plusses are even greater for the preacher himself. There is no fumbling for direction each week. I don’t know how many hours I would have wasted over 17 years if every week I started from scratch trying to figure out what I was going to preach on that week. I always knew. The next chapter. Or the next paragraph.

This meant I was able to avoid the Saturday night panic. In 17 years of pastoring, I believe there were only two times when Sunday’s sermons were not ready for delivery by the end of the workday on Friday.

Each Monday, I came to my office early in the morning, opened my Bible and started with God’s Word for my life and our church that week. Never once did God fail to speak to me from his Word. God is not silent when we approach his Word. God always spoke to me even though I was not always a good conduit for His message. Yes, even expository preachers lay an “egg” from time to time!

5. Expository preaching provided me many opportunities to develop sermonic resources. As I entered a new series, I visited Christian bookstores and libraries to cull out what tools I needed to purchase for the new series. I bought those commentaries or helps that assisted me in answering well either of my two foundational questions: (1) What did it say? and (2) What does it say? Over the course of years, I was able to develop a good library as well as a rich resource of illustrations and applicational materials.

6. Nothing fosters personal spiritual growth in a pastor more than expository preaching. Why? One is forced to study systematically and inculcate God’s Word personally. I always had more material than I could ever use in the preaching event. I was the beneficiary of the overflow. Expository preaching enables one to minister from the overflow rather than a half-full or empty cup.

7. Expository preaching does promote longevity in the pastorate. I lasted 17 years and never felt that I had run out of preaching material.

Why do so many pastors leave the ministry? Surely, one reason is burnout. There is a depletion of the minister’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy. I found the systematic study and personal spiritual preparation required for expository preaching an irreplaceable source of renewal. The congregation never grew tired of God’s Word, and I didn’t either.

As a pastor, you cannot be all things to all people. Early on, I determined my major concentration would be upon the ministry of the Word and I would allocate the time necessary to do that well. After all, we are called to be “a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This meant I had to give lesser priority to counseling, administration, visitation and other aspects of the ministry. This did not mean, however, that these other ministries were neglected. As pastor, I can delegate many things. The one thing I cannot delegate is the preaching ministry.

The apostles came to this conclusion for spiritual leadership long before I: “We . . . will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Keep your priorities straight, and God will build His church through you!

You do not have to be an expository preacher to proclaim God’s Word faithfully. The Holy Spirit blesses all kinds of preaching styles and methods. However, expository preaching will enrich your life and the people to whom God has called you.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM