It can still be expository preaching if….
…it’s not a sermon on in a series on a Bible book. It makes good and wise sense for a decent amount of a church’s preaching to consist of consecutive expository sermons through Bible books, whether whole or parts. Cornhill Director Christopher Ash has set some of these reasons out in his excellent booklet Listen Up. I think it also follows simply from the nature of verbal revelation as God has given it to us. The Holy Spirit inspired and has preserved for us not a set of unrelated theological and exhortatory bullet-points, but full literary pieces. Preaching that aims to be faithful to Scripture must reflect the form as well as the content, and consecutive exposition is a good way of doing that.
However… good tool, bad master. We are not first of all educationalists delivering programmes of instruction; we are first of all shepherds with a flock whom the Lord has entrusted to us, so we might shepherd them and feed them (you can see I was in 1 Peter 5 yesterday). So did three people in a church of seventy souls die in the last month? Their pastor might well scrap his planned series for a week to preach 1 Thess 4.13-18. Of course if he’s doing this kind of every other week, the agenda is probably being set by him, not the Word. But let’s not run away from that cliff-edge only to fall off the other side.
Every pastor will also decide how much of his planned preaching ministry ought to be consecutive, and how much not. Of course, even the topical and doctrinal sermons must at heart be expository: that is, the main point of the sermon must be the main point of one passage, or a couple. Expository preaching: not a detailed set of methods, but a deep conviction that preaching must be first and last Scripture-driven.
It can still be expository preaching if….
….you just preach one verse.
Text preaching! Perish the thought.
Then again, no.
It's patently clear that some of the greats of the past did this. Their sermons were sometimes more expository than they are given credit for. In part, that is because (with preachers like Spurgeon and Archibald Brown) you never get to hear the reading comments they made which often set context and did various other things we would typically do in a sermon.
But if expository preaching is letting God say what he has said, in other words letting the main point of the text be the main point of the sermon, then a text can be expository too.
I happen to think it is harder to preach this way then with a longer passage. Nevertheless, it has its place. My esteemed colleage, RC Lucas, told me the other day that preachers have forgotten how to preach a single verse well. I think he's right. But in some places, it is called for. There's a need to preach Ephesians 1.1-14. But if you want people to drink in all the detail, sometimes you have to preach Ephesians 1.4-5 on its own too.
Many of us will do this with targeted evangelistic sermons. Why not at other times too?
It can still be expository preaching if….
…the preacher doesn’t take us explicitly through every verse in the passage. Different preachers will take different views on how often they should say “now look with me at v.15”, or “did you notice the therefore in v.1?”, or “see how those three participle clauses all depend on the same main verb” (I threw that last one in as a joke).
Just how much of that the preacher actually says in the sermon seems to me to be entirely an area for freedom of choice. It will be determined partly by the preacher’s style; it should also be significantly determined by the audience he’s speaking to: what will genuinely help these particular people open themselves to what the Holy Spirit aims to do in them by means of this Word?
Of course there are limits. On the one hand, we rejoice in the Protestant heritage that put the Bible in everyone’s hands, so that people can literally see for themselves that the minister’s authority is derived only from the Word. Therefore we will want to show them clearly that our message comes from Scripture, not from ourselves. On the other hand, we are not there to give oral commentaries in which every interesting and supporting textual feature must be mentioned.
Between these two extremes is a freedom for the preacher to explore with wisdom, as he seeks to preach to his particular flock as well as he can. As with so many things, perhaps it’s good to break a habit deliberately sometimes. Do you love mentioning Greek connectives, especially if you think your English Bible foolishly missed one out? Lighten up. The main point will still be clear enough in the English words that are there. Could someone leave your sermon not entirely clear that it was Scripture you were preaching? Get their noses in the God-breathed words that are your authority.
It can still be expository preaching if….
…in a particular week in the rough-and-tumble of pastoral ministry the preacher hasn’t been able to put in the study hours to work out all the tough bits of his preaching-text. Take the end of 1 John ch.5. Verse 15 is tricky. People have probably written whole PhDs on vs.16-17. And I have serious doubts over whether the translation ‘continue to sin’ in v.18 is right (just a simple present tense in the Greek). Also there’s that (in)famous final verse: just how has this whole letter actually been about idolatry? It may well take up all my realistically available study time working all that out. Ah, but there’s then a sermon to construct and application to work through.
But if I look again I can see, after a few hours rather than whole days, that some things are clear: whatever vs.14-15 are exactly promising, it’s an example of the extremely clear v.13. In fact the praying in vs.16-17 looks like a further outworking of v.13. Moving towards the end, v.20 is a beautifully clear and profound verse that rounds off quite a few of the themes John set out in 1.1-4. So, in and around vs.13 and 20,I have plenty to say in my sermon that I have good reason for believing is at the heart of the main point of 5.13-21. Some of the tougher things can wait for another time, if need be.
Dever and Gilbert in their recent book Preach say that expository preaching is preaching that makes the main point of your sermon the same as the main point of your passage. It’s still expository preaching this Sunday if this week you haven’t worked out every tough detail in the text and aren’t going to confuse/bore your folks with half-baked exegetical musings, but having worked to get the main point of the passage you ruthlessly put the commentaries away and gave a good chunk of your prep hours to working on application and communication.
EMA. Coming Soon.
OK, that was Easter. Now you can book for the EMA. And here's a reason why.
Do you know why you preach?
I know it's a biblical command, but why?
And what is God doing as you preach?
Can you articulate a theology of preaching that is more than just "it's how God speaks." That's glorious in itself, of course, but a biblical theology of preaching gives you more than a theology of communication. It gives you a theology of presence. I'm not sure many of us are clear on that, and it's one of the reasons preaching is devalued both by those who are called to preach and those who sit under preaching. I hope you can see it's essential to get this right.
And it's why we've asked Sinclair Ferguson (who better?) to tackle this very subject. See you there. I need it. And you probably do too.
A very happy Easter
I stand in a long tradition of grumpy Christians who think we don't need festivals to celebrate key Christian doctrines. We should be doing it all the time. The early church met the first day of the week every week because that is the day when Jesus rose from the grave. So, I don't mind singing "Thine be the glory" at Christmas. And I certainly have chosen "Hark the herald angels sing" in the summer.
Bah, humbug. Or whatever the Easter equivalent is.
Nevertheless, I'm happy to have a few days off work with family and church family. And so, there's nothing here from us for a few days. Enjoy your break. And rejoice as you celebrate what you celebrate every Sunday – the justifying death and glorious resurrection of the Eternal Son of God.
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
The tragic case of Peaches Geldof and heavenly reunions
You may have heard the news last week of the tragic death of Peaches Geldof, one of the children of Bob Geldof and the late Paula Yates. Cause of death is uncertain at the moment, but it looks remarkably like suicide. Bob Geldof's words express the reality of hopeless grief: The family are "beyond pain" he said. One newspaper headline caught my eye.
This is London's free rag. The headline sparked some controversy. But it did get me thinking about how we encourage the bereaved and made me realise – once again – that a lot of our bereavement counselling takes this kind of reuniting line. "At least you'll see him again…" we might say. Or perhaps we might silently endorse someone who says something similar about the loss of a loved one.
Without wanting to sound too callous, I think that is pastorally harmful. I know that in the midst of grief we hold onto any hope we can get. But that kind of advice is both pastorally unhelpful and theologically misguided.
- It is pastorally unhelpful because if we allow it to stand unchallenged, the rest of the bereaved person's life is about waiting for death with an eager anticipation. It does not really allow someone to grieve and move on, which is what we should be encouraging. At its worst, especially in the young, it may even encourage ideas of taking one's own life in order to speed the reunion process.
- It is theologically misguided because reunion is not a biblical paradigm, except where the reunion is with Christ. I have no doubt I will recognise people in the new creation, but the defining glory of that new place will be "with Christ." There will be no marriage. Earthly relationships will be surpassed. I will relate to you, dead reader, better then than I do to my wife now. And that's saying something. If we let the reunion model of grief stand then we detract from the reality of what is "better by far."
I hope that doesn't sound cold. I firmly believe that it is ultimately better than any earthly reunion. So it must be for our good.
A fable about preaching chiasms
As usual, I read through the passage before starting my sermon preparation. As I did so, it struck me forcibly that this passage could perhaps be structured in a certain way. I wasn’t sure, but it was a nagging doubt. ‘Wow!’ I thought to myself. If that is true, then it needs to be a centre point of my sermon and I need to let the congregation see how wonderfully constructed this little narrative is. Never mind bookends! I’ve found a chiasm. But it needed work. So I gave much of my sermon preparation over to developing the structure and working out my headings to reflect the chiastic nature of the story. Then – Bingo! I got it. Much celebration, running round the house, star jumps, making of coffee etc. But had I got it exactly right? It needed more work, and more work I gave it. However, a curious thing happened. The more I worked on it, the more confusing it seemed to be. ‘This will just befuddle people,’ I thought. It’s one thing using this Hebrew structure to help me understand the passage, but it can’t be my sermon. So, reluctantly, I rejected the chiasm as a sermon structure. Back to square one. As usual, I read through the passage before starting my sermon preparation.
A I read the passage
B I thought I saw a chiasm
C I thought, ‘My people need to hear this!’
D I spent several hours working out the chiasm
E I found it!
D' I spent several more hours fine tuning the chiasm
C' I thought, ‘This will just confuse people’
B' I rejected the chiasm
A' I read the passage. Again.
Gifts and grace
Here is the second of J.C.Ryle’s applications from Luke 10:17-20.
Gifts… are very inferior to grace.
Ryle is commenting on Jesus’ words, “…rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Whatever gifts God may give us, whatever successes in gospel ministry, it is “a far higher privilege to be converted and pardoned…and to have our names written in the register of saved souls.”
Gifts, such as mental vigour, vast memory, striking eloquence, ability in argument, power in reasoning, are often unduly valued by those who possess them, and unduly admired by those who possess them not (my emphasis).” We need to remember that “gifts without grace save no one’s soul… He that has gifts without grace is dead in sins… But he that has grace without gifts is alive to God, however unlearned and ignorant he may appear to man.
In vintage Ryle style he ends like this: Without the marks of grace,
a man may have abundance of gifts and turn out to be nothing better than a follower of Judas Iscariot, the false apostle, and go at last to hell. With such marks, a man may be like Lazarus, poor and despised upon earth, and have no gifts at all. But his name is written in heaven, and Christ shall own him as one of His people at the last day.
How much success can you bear?
I am using J.C.Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on Luke’s Gospel for my personal devotions. Although his thoughts are not always dead centre on the main theme of a passage, they are true, realistic, nourishing, and challenging. They are doing me good day by day.
Last Monday I read Luke 10:17-20 and was struck by Ryle’s applications. Here’s the first. He comments on verse 17: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ’Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’”
How ready Christians are to be puffed up with success”
Success is what every faithful labourer wants. We long to see “Satan’s kingdom pulled down, and souls converted to God.” But “the time of success is a time of danger to the Christian’s soul. The very hearts that are depressed when all things seem against them, are often unduly exalted in the day of prosperity… Most of Christ’s labourers probably have as much success as their souls can bear” (my emphasis).
I was convicted especially by that last sentence. I suppose it is better that you and I are elated at gospel success than personal success, but better still that we are not elated by success at all.