Expository Preaching

Bob Waldron

Most preachers would probably claim that expository preaching is their preferred kind of preaching. Most every preacher will have read a book or two on expository preaching and will have tried his hand at it. I think that most preachers discover that good expository preaching is very difficult to do. Of course, the meaning of the word "good" in the preceding sentence is ambiguous. Let me define 'good' as meaning:

  1. That in the preaching done, the speaker has been absolutely true to the passage being expounded and to its context.
  2. That the message of the passage is presented in such a way as to be intelligible and interesting to the listeners.
  3. That the message has been profitable.

I, too, enjoy expository preaching, and have done quite a lot of it. Perhaps I have learned some things that could help others to do a better job with this kind of lesson. I would like to share some pointers with you on this subject.

In order to preach effective expository lessons (and so fulfill #2 and #3 above), it is important to avoid two extremes.

The first extreme is to confuse "expository" with "commentary". If one writes a commentary, he is duty-bound to deal with every syllable in the passage. If he does not, then he is regarded as a coward who chose not to deal with a certain expression or phrase because it was too hard.

This may be fine for writing commentaries, but it will not do for expository preaching. There are two significant reasons why. One, time is so limited in most sermons that one cannot spend paragraph after paragraph on mere details. The second reason is that, though the speaker hopefully has studied the passage diligently, the audience has not. Therefore the audience will not be up to prolonged, minute studies of words and phrases. Therefore, to succeed in expository preaching, one must disabuse his mind of any idea that he is preparing an oral commentary.

The other extreme to be avoided is at the other end of the spectrum from the "commentary" approach. Instead, this approach makes a mockery of the passage, of its inspired writer, and of God. I refer to the practice of taking a passage and trying to think of cute and clever things that can be said about it, or of taking a passage and deciding that in order to be original one is going to teach some "good things about the prodigal son."

Letís set forth a few things that must be observed in order to do good expository preaching. First, one cannot go cruising a day before the sermon in material with which he is not familiar and expect to be able to absorb the message enough to expound it. One must soak in the material for a time and meditate upon it, not merely read someone elseís meditation on it but do his own. It will prove necessary, in fact, to read othersí thoughts and comments on a book or passage, but that must not take the place of your own studying and thinking about it. I have found that one of the best ways to capture the message of a book or passage is to memorize it and then quote it at odd times, seeking to put the expression the writer would have put into it if he had delivered it orally. By this practice, one must search deeply for the writerís meaning, for expression cannot be given in reading or in quoting a selection until there is understanding of it.

An important step in preparing expository lessons is to ask: "Why did the writer say this at this point? What is the relationship of these two paragraphs? How does the thought move from this paragraph to the next?" To find these answers takes time and care. Do not invent answers, but do not seize upon the first thought that comes along. Remember, it is not the expositorís job to be clever or sensational or original. It is his job to bring out and set forth the message God had in mind when His inspired servant wrote the passage.

Now one is ready to begin putting his sermon together. His goal is to present the message of the passage to an audience that has not had the opportunity to study it as much as he has. It is at this point that one determines whether the lesson will be commentary or expository. The speaker will not be able to go into all the details, and maybe not into all the sub-points of the passage. The speaker has to be able to decide which details are necessary to include in order to make the writerís reasoning clear, and which details must be excluded to make the sermon easily comprehensible. To make my points clearer, and to add some further comments, it would be best to use an example.

The prophets were inspired preachers and there is an abundance of good preaching in the prophetic books, so letís use the book of Isaiah to make some points about expository preaching. We will use chapter 51 for an example of preparing an expository lesson. To begin with, one needs to know thoroughly the historical setting of Isaiahís day. Second, and especially is this true in the latter part of the book, one needs to understand the history of Judah following Isaiahís day to be able to understand much that Isaiah says about captivity and the return from captivity.

The layout of the book is very interesting in that the first 35 chapters deal with the present threat of Assyrian captivity. This was the threat in Isaiahís own time. The threat that would come later, however, would be Babylonian captivity. Following that captivity, there would be a deliverance from bondage, but there would ultimately be a deliverance from the greatest captivity of all Ė sin itself. Now, notice how neatly chapters 36-39 serve as the perfect transition between the past and the future. In these chapters, Hezekiah and Judah are facing the same Assyrian threat that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. But, because of the righteousness of Hezekiah, and the efforts he has made to lead Judah in righteousness, the Assyrian juggernaut is completely frustrated and is not permitted by God even to shoot an arrow at Jerusalem. It does appear that righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people, does it not?

At this same time, however, Hezekiah gets deathly ill, is miraculously delivered, and receives messengers from the king of Babylon. In his pride, instead of showing the emissaries of Merodach-baladan all that God has done in delivering Judah, he shows them how great he is and how wealthy he is. Through the prophet God sends a message: "Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith Jehovah. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, whom thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon" (39:6-7). With this somber prophecy our attention is pointed forward to the coming threat of Babylon, to the captivity that Judah will suffer, and then to the deliverance that she will enjoy.

So graphically are Isaiahís predictions made that skeptics have found it impossible to believe that they were made before they came true. They speculate about several Isaiahís scattered out so that they could write after the events and make it appear they foretold them. They affirm such things even though never, ever has there been the slightest scrap of evidence found to support such an idea. But even among those who believe in one Isaiah, and in the unity of his book, one has to pinch himself occasionally to remind himself he is reading prophecy instead of history.

Now we begin to draw a little closer to the actual chapter we want to use for our lesson. One of Isaiahís greatest points is that manís biggest problem is not Assyria, or Babylon, or the old Soviet Union, or physical captivity. Manís biggest problem is sin. Isaiah hammers away at this theme. His other great point is that man will be delivered from his ultimate bondage by the specially chosen servant, the Messiah. Therefore, in the last half of the book, Isaiah tells Judah, "Yes, you will go into captivity, but you will be delivered from that captivity, and you will be delivered from even a greater captivity, that of sin." In other words, in times past, only a partial deliverance was achieved, but through the Messiah and His kingdom, full and final freedom would be accomplished.

In the vicinity of chapter 51, Isaiah describes the spirit of Zion and Jerusalem as being very low and discouraged. "But Zion said, ĎJehovah hath forsaken me, and the Lord hath forgotten meí" (49:14). God begins to provide encouragement for His people (48:20-22). He mixes promises of redemption, deliverance and salvation with efforts to cheer His people to believe that He can do these things. Over and over His might is proclaimed: this is Almighty God, the Holy One of Israel. He can do whatever it takes.

So we come to chapter 51. This, too, is a chapter of exhortation and promise. Be sure that we know thoroughly what is in the chapter. Then, break the chapter up into its paragraphs. When this is done, capture the thought from each paragraph. Finally link those thoughts together into a powerful argument.

So we come to our analysis of the chapter for our sermon. We not only want to expound; we want to give our audience something from the study that will greatly benefit and inspire them. Different titles could be chosen, but one in keeping with the point that we will make is "Isaiah 51: the value of a Christian." We use Christian in our title because, even though there were no Christians strictly speaking in the Old Testament, there were saints, and the points made in this chapter about them also apply to Christians.

The first thing we notice is to whom the comments of God are addressed in the chapter. It does not matter that we will have to lift these from verses 1, 4, and 7. We are not writing a commentary; we are preaching. The comments of God are addressed to those that "follow righteousness," to those "that seek Jehovah," to Godís people, His nation, to those "that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law." This establishes the validity of our title; it shows we are right on target. The contents of chapter 51 are addressed to Godís people, His redeemed ones, His saints.

The next thing to do is look at the first paragraph, verses 1-3, and since we have already dealt with verse 1a in our first point, we focus on 1b-3. Boil the argument. "Look at the quarry from which you were dug. You came from Abraham, but he was but one man when I chose him. If I have blessed him so abundantly, as you see today, then there is no question that I can bless you." Verse three essentially says, "And the Lord intends to bless Zion." The present distress and hopelessness of Zion is likened to a desert, but God is going to change that desert into the garden of Eden. If we were emphasizing a slightly different point, we might give this little paragraph more attention, but we do not need to give it more attention for this sermon. It is just one of the thoughts God uses to encourage His saints that He can and will bless them.

Now we look at paragraph 2, verses 4-6. In this paragraph God announces with fanfare His plan to bless, to save, and to judge "the peoples." This is a blessing that will far exceed the boundaries of old Israel; it will indeed encompass the whole earth. It will be a blessing for those throughout the world who "wait" for Him. This announcement is beautiful and powerful; we need do nothing more than state it in its own glorious terms. But now we come to the first point for the lesson we are preaching. Look at the contrast in verse 6: Look up at the heavens; look out upon the earth. They are fleeting; they will vanish like smoke, and those who dwell upon the earth shall perish, but Godís salvation is for even, and His righteousness shall not be abolished. We usually think of the mountains as permanent, and man as ephemeral, but the astounding truth is that, compared to the existence of the saint of God, the mountains are but for a second. The saint of God who receives this salvation God provides, who accepts the righteousness God reveals, it is he that shall abide forever.

This paragraph is very important. The rest of our points depend upon it. The saint of God only lives 70 or 80 years at the most. He is not noted in world history. He is a nobody. Here today and gone tomorrow. But what God is telling us is the value of the saint. We who are the children of God are the heritage of God. We are all that matters to God. When the heavens and the earth have passed away into oblivion, the saints of God will exist eternally.

Now look at the third paragraph: verses 7-9. God addresses His saints, and He speaks to them on the basis of the great point made in verse 6. Do not fear what men may say, do not be intimidated by the harsh and cruel disparagements of the world. The world thinks it is what matters, and it shall endure forever, but actually worldly men are a part of that which is temporary and insubstantial. "The moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool." But Godís righteousness and His salvation will be forever, unto all generations." The emphasis, of course is upon Godís salvation, and the righteousness He extends to men, but we also see the great lesson that it is the saint who accepts this salvation who will endure and be blessed forever. If it were not for this application the assurance that Godís salvation is forever would be of scant comfort to the believer. Remember that the point being made is meant to be an exhortation to the discouraged saint. Therefore the point we make is legitimate: the value of the saint in the sight of God.

In verses 9-11 God uses His past activity to shore up the faith of His people. He reminds them how He dealt with the ancient monster of the sea (Rahab), which is Egypt (see 30:7). The figures in verse 10 refer to how God defeated Egypt when He delivered His people and "dried up the sea," referring to His dividing the waters of the Red Sea so that His people could cross over. Just as He rescued His people then, so He will do again, and "the ransomed of Jehovah will return." How great will be their joy. We will not greatly emphasize this paragraph; we will expound it just enough to connect us to the next point in our lesson.

Our major point is now made in the paragraph consisting of verses 12-16. I express the point here graphically: You have become afraid of the wrong one. Look at the contrast that is set forth. You are afraid of man that shall die, of human beings with the longevity of grass! On the other hand you have forgotten Jehovah, your Maker, the One who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.

Men of the world think that they are the ones with the power. Pilate thought he was the one with the power. Agrippa and Festus thought it was Paul who was on trial. But, no, it was Pilate, and Agrippa, and Festus who were on trial.

God will deliver "the captive." Do not doubt that He can do it. He is the one who stirs the sea so that the waves of it roar. Now look at the power of verse 16: "I have put my words in thy mouth, and have covered thee in the shadow of my hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, ĎThou art my people.í" In other word God has given His saints His revelation, and He has covered and protected and nurtured them, that, in addition to the powerful acts of creation He has performed, He may also perform another: He may designate Zion as His people. This latter act is the chief accomplishment of God in all His creation.

The value of the saint of God does not derive from the saint himself. He is nothing, a worm. But his value comes because of the choices he has made to "follow righteousness," to "seek Jehovah," to be Godís people, to "know righteousness," and in whose heart is" the law of God. Because the cause of God is eternal, and His kingdom is everlasting, the saint is Godís heritage and His greatest accomplishment. How utterly grateful, and how utterly humble His saints should be to be the recipients of such great blessings.

The rest of the chapter does not lend itself to the points of application we are making in this lesson, but I usually go ahead and express the primary points made. I do so quickly and briefly because I want my audience to go away thinking of the points we have so far emphasized. In verses 17-20 God calls to Jerusalem to wake up, get up, as someone that has been drunk and fallen. The question is how is God possibly going to be able to bless Jerusalem who has drunk the cup of Godís wrath, and her sons have fainted and lie in the intersections like an antelope caught in a net. It is not necessary to go into further detail than that. In verses 21-23 God answers: He is going to take the cup of wrath Jerusalem has had to drink, and He is going to give that same cup to her enemies, to those who have afflicted her.

The idea for this sermon came from studying Isaiah and from studying this chapter. In other words, I did not think of the idea and then try to find someplace that taught it. In the future I plan to use other examples and to make other points about preaching.