Good Exposition is not a Recipe Tour

Recipe2Some people wrongly suggest that expository preaching is like explaining a recipe, rather than letting the listeners savour the flavour of a well-cooked meal.  A good meal is the goal, not an explanation of the recipe. For some preachers this is an accurate description of their preaching, but don’t judge expository preaching by bad examples of it.

An expository preacher is primarily concerned with communicating the point of the passage, not seeking to explain the point of every detail.  Expository preaching is about effectively and accurately communicating the text, not using the text to offer a lecture in sermonic method or applied theology.

A good expository preacher knows that a story has its own way of carrying and conveying its point, and that a poem works in a different way.  Thus a good expositor preacher, preaching a story, will not dissect it into a lifeless and experience-free recipe, but will communicate the story as effectively and accurately as possible.

1. We start with the text as it is.  Expository preaching is about the text being boss of the message, not the message squeezing the text into an outline or idea that doesn’t quite fit.

2. We ponder what needs to be added to help the text communicate effectively.  Is any explanation necessary to allow it to communicate?  Perhaps an underlining of the point, exposing it for clarity, yet timed appropriately to not undermine the impact of the text?  Maybe it would help to make explicit the contemporary relevance of the story, or maybe how it fits into the bigger story of God’s Word and our world?

3. We try to avoid any undermining material.  Unnecessary and endless explanation of details, numerous unnecessary or disconnected illustrations, ill-timed statements of the main thought, commentary style titles for each segment of the passage, or even a personal delivery manner that contradicts or leeches away the emotion, tension or energy of the text.  Anything unhelpful should be purged from the message so that we are preaching the message of the text, not preaching a message using a text.

When you preach a story, or a poem, or whatever, be sure to be expository . . . but not the wrong kind that feels like the explanation of a recipe!


Bruce Fong – Inspirational Incarnational Influences on Expository Preaching

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220My first ever seminary class was with Dr Bruce Fong sixteen years ago.  It was such a joy to walk through half the Bible under Bruce’s contagious laugh and delight in the Scriptures.  We have both changed jobs a couple of times since then, but he is now the Dean of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston Campus.  Bruce blogs regularly on  As we continue this series marking the release of Pleased to Dwell, Bruce shares with us some thoughts on the difference the Incarnation makes to expository preaching.


Every preacher is challenged to build a bridge between the sermon and the souls of people.  These two worlds of earth and eternity were stunningly linked by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He was incarnated at His birth.  The Scriptures tell us that He gave up the expression of who He was as the Son of God in order to identify with mankind and ultimately sacrifice His life on their behalf.  This incarnation of the Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth is a model for every preacher to do the same.

When an expositor successfully follows the example of Jesus’ incarnation they ultimately blend culture with the Gospel by way of four emphases.  He modeled each of these qualities in His coming to earth. They are humility, a new mind, a renunciation and a new identification.

First and foremost of these incarnational elements is Christ’s example of being sent to be born as a human.  He did not argue, complain or resist the Father’s plan.  Instead, He humbled Himself and became human so that He could die as a substitute for sin in our place.  The expositor lives a humble life in compensation, Spartan lifestyle and public affirmation.

Second, somewhat related to His humility Jesus Christ demonstrated a new way of thinking.  His incarnation led to an existence that was never self-absorbed.  He did not worry about losing public status but instead was absorbed with an unending interest in His assigned mission, bringing the Gospel to the whole world.  In the same way expositors by virtue of their mission selflessly bring attention to their Lord.

Third, before Christ came to earth as a Galilean Jew He first “emptied himself”.  This was a sacrifice.  He renounced His status, his independence and his immunity.  Voluntarily He set aside what was rightfully His.  Pride and the pursuit of fame has no place in the life of an expository preacher who is following the incarnational model of the Savior.

Fourth, Jesus had a genuine solidarity with man by becoming a true human, sharing in the limitations of flesh and blood, through both life and death.  He lived among the people, embraced them and served them.  Expository preachers will be more effective when they live among and embrace the people to whom they bring the Word.

The incarnation that Jesus followed and modeled is our example of His devotion for us.  Furthermore, it is the example that should be the driving motivation for every expository preacher.

Expository: Why?

All week I have been raising concerns about different approaches taken to preaching.  There are others, but I wanted to finish with a reminder of the core requirements for expository preaching.  It isn’t about sermon shape – all four approaches mentioned this week might be used in an expository ministry.  Yet none of them define it.

1. The best preaching will always involve the work of God’s Spirit.  He is the one that searches the depths of the heart and communicates that.  We need to be sure that we are pursuing His heart as we study His Word.  We must prayerfully pursue the whole process of preparation, all the time being open to learning and changing and growing ourselves.  We also need to pursue His heart for the people to whom we preach.  Prayer has to be a critical thread throughout the whole preparation process.

2. The best biblical preaching will always be genuinely biblical.  That is, the text is not being used, but offered.  It isn’t a data source for anecdotes, for launch pads or for proof texting.  It is the inspired Word of God that we seek to offer to others as we preach.  This means that we take the form seriously, we take the meaning seriously, we take the relevance seriously.  The Bible is not something that serves us, it is something that changes us, and it is something we consequently serve to others.  And the more effectively we communicate the Word, the clearer the path for listeners to not only gain information, but to be transformed by encountering the God who gives of Himself in His Word.

3. The best preaching will always take the issue of communication seriously.  So it isn’t enough to pray hard and study well, producing a textually accurate and even a congregation specific relevant message.  If we don’t take our role as communicators seriously, then we can be a real bottleneck.  Communication is more than just a crude explanation of exegesis with some illustrations stapled on to the outline.  Communication is concerned with the mood of the text, the persons to whom we are speaking, the situation, etc.  It is concerned with the words we choose, the way we say them, the body language that reinforces or undermines.  Our communication matters because God places such a high value on communication.

4. The best preaching will always emphasise the relevance to the listeners.  We don’t make the Bible relevant.  We show how it is relevant.  And so we don’t perform a sermon to show off our own knowledge, nor even to simply declare God’s truth.  We preach to communicate to people.  So we care, and we prepare in order to communicate.

God. Bible. Communicator. Listeners.  All critical features of expository preaching.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 2

Yesterday I pondered the challenges of unfamiliarity of context.  When we preach from the Old Testament, if our listeners are more used to the New Testament, then this will be a challenge.  We thought about the canonical context, as well as the historical context.  There’s another challenge:

Low expectation of relevance.  I have to remember that by the time I come to preach from Ruth, I will have spent many hours in studying it.  It will have taken root in my heart again and God will have stirred me through His Word.  This will not be the case for the listeners.

They will be coming into the meeting with minds and hearts on all sorts of things.  They will be thinking of anything but pre-monarchical Israelite history.  So if I start into the message with an assumption that Ruth is a motivating destination, I may well be starting into my message alone.  I’d much rather take folks with me.  How can I do that?  A couple of thoughts:

1. Introduce with relevance.  I have written this before, but I’ll reiterate because it is important.  It is not dishonouring the text to start with an introduction before reading it.  I think the text can be dishonoured by reading it before people care to hear what it says.  So one approach is to craft an introduction that overtly seeks to connect the listeners and their current state of disequilibrium with the text as relevant to them.  This is not to “pander” to felt needs, but to recognize the reality of life and what it is to be a listener.  Getting relevance into the introduction makes all the sense in the world.  The listeners need an early appreciation of the fact that the preacher is relevant, the message is relevant and the text itself is relevant.

2. Let the narrative bite quickly.  This does not necessarily contradict with the previous point.  With a narrative the preacher has the advantage of the inherently gripping nature of the genre.  TV show producers know that there is a better way to grip viewers than a long series of opening credits with promises of big name actors and actresses (as they did thirty years ago!)  The best way is to let the narrative begin and bite quickly.  Once bitten, viewers will then tolerate the 40 seconds of opening credits (sometimes several minutes into the show).  This illustrates what I am saying here.  The listeners should be gripped if the first three or four verses of Ruth are presented effectively.  Maybe it would be worth getting into the tension of the plot before pulling back to make sense of context, etc.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative

I am preparing a series of messages from the book of Ruth.  Consequently I am processing some of the challenges that come with preaching through an Old Testament narrative.  Perhaps some of the thinking might be helpful, or at least there can be a sense of conversing together about this important subject.  As ever, no claim here to being exhaustive, but hopefully mildly provocative in a good way.

In our church it is fair to say that the majority of messages, from both in-house and visiting speakers, come from the New Testament.  This means that the Old Testament is much less familiar turf. As I prepare to preach Ruth, then, I must take that into account.

Less familiar literary context – I have to be careful not to assume anything here.  Ruth comes in a period of about four centuries covered by the bleak book of Judges.  Here is the jewel on the dark velvet.  But I can’t assume folks understand the book of Judges.  For some it will be a collection of children’s stories (where protagonist is always portrayed as a full-on hero, whatever the text may hint).  For others it will mean nothing at all.  So I need to think through how to make sense of the fact that “In the days when the judges judged” is the opening line of Ruth.

At some point I might think about showing where Ruth came in the Hebrew ordering of the canon.  Not after Judges (in the former prophets), but after Proverbs (in the writings).  Specifically, after Proverbs 31 . . . a wife of noble character, who can find?  Again, I can’t just drop that in without confusing people.  It will need a bit of explanation, perhaps I might use a powerpoint slide to help visualize the difference.  Perhaps.

Less familiar historical context – Not only is the Judges context unfamiliar, so is the culture of this time frame.  It is considerably further removed from today than the more familiar world of the New Testament.  This is pre-monarchy.  This is before the prophets and their impact on the nation of Israel.  I don’t want to preach it with assumptions, and have some listeners envisioning the action in the context of the Roman occupation, or whatever.

I need to think through what is pertinent about the context, the culture, the politics of the day, etc.  And I need to think through how to communicate that in the messages.

The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).

What Does Expository Mean?

This site is committed to expository preaching.  In many other posts I have referred to what genuine expository preaching is and is not.  It is about a philosophy, a commitment to the authority and influence of the text on the message.  It is not about a form, some commitment to a specific shape or preferred form of preaching.  But in light of the question I was pondering in the last two posts, I want to step back even further.  Not what is “expository preaching,” but what does “expository” mean?

I am teaching a course in Expository Hermeneutics, so I looked up the term in various dictionaries.  It is most commonly defined in reference to writing.  Expository designates nonfiction writing that explains and describes with the aim of conveying information or presenting a certain point of view.  Exposition is about clearly explaining something that is difficult to understand.  The term is also used in reference to music.  It is the first part of a composition, or the opening section of a fugue, in which the themes are presented explicitly.  It is used in theater in reference to that part of a play that provides background information necessary for understanding characters and action.

By definition then, if we believe in expository preaching, we are committed to setting forth the meaning, making clear, exposing, making explicit what is contained within the preaching text.  This mini-foray into the world of english dictionaries perhaps presents a nudge this morning.  It nudges us to make sure we are indeed clear.  Do we make the meaning and intent of a passage clearer, or would our preaching better be labeled “Obfuscatory soliloquy” (to save you looking it up, that is a (usually long) unclear dramatic speech intended to give the illusion of unspoken reflections!)

The Basic Elements of a Preaching Definition

It is a good exercise to think through what should be included in a definition of expository preaching.  One way is to collect several definitions and recognize what is present in all of them, or unique to some of them.  While wording may change, it seems to me that a definition should include the following pieces as a bare minimum:

Some reference to the meaning of a biblical text – whether one takes Sunukjian’s phrase “the true and exact meaning of a text” or Robinson’s specification of the method used to arrive at that understanding or simply use of the term “truth,” as in Vines & Shaddix’s “biblical truth,” somehow expository preaching in its definition must honor the reality of specific and true meaning in the text.

Some reference to communication – perhaps “oral communication” or “presentation” or “spoken” or whatever.  Somehow the meaning of a text has to be conveyed to the other side of the chasm (John Stott’s 2nd world) – the listeners.

Some reference to relevance – without relevance, the communication of biblical truth could remain at the level of historical lecture (and often does).  True biblical preaching has to include the meaning of a biblical passage communicated with relevance.  Generally the term “applied” will come in at this point.

Some reference to God – should go without saying, but the whole process involves God.  God’s Spirit at work in the study, in the delivery, in the lives of the listeners, in the Word He inspired, etc.

Expository preaching is surely the meaning of at least one biblical passage communicated with applied relevance to contemporary listeners, the whole process being under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  I still prefer Haddon’s definition in many ways, but would you agree that these four elements form the sine qua non of expository preaching?  What would you include?