Yet it is easier for topical preaching to be non-Biblical than for expository preaching to be so. A man can take a topic, throw together an outline, undergird it with a few texts, and mold it and shape it as he likes. The result may be Biblical preaching, but in many cases it isn't. In topical preaching you can preach your own philosophy and get the Bible to back you up. In expository preaching it is just the opposite you have nothing to do with the outline and you have nothing to do with the context, since the scripture makes that decision for you. You are completely under the control of the Word of God.
What brought expository preaching into disrepute, however, was preachers who allowed it to degenerate into a running commentary. They would take a Scripture portion, quote one verse, and make a few comments on it. Then they would quote the next verse and comment on it. Nobody likes that, not even the one who is doing it. Dwight L. Moody once said of himself, "When I was a boy and my father would send me out to weed the garden, I would do such a poor job that I had to put a stick in the ground to know where to begin the next morning!" Some preachers start making comments on the Word of God the same way Moody pulled weeds—one here and one there. And when the time is up, they announce the study will continue next week. But you have to put a stick in the ground, as it were, because you know that what you are going to get next week will be just about as poor as what you got this time. Running commentary is not expository preaching.
The Word of God gives superb examples of both topical and expository preaching. In Luke 24 our Lord joins two disciples on the Emmaus road en route from Jerusalem to their homes, and discusses with them the events of the Crucifixion weekend that has just passed. After their sad remark, "We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel" (verse 21), Jesus turns to them and says, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he ex pounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (verses 25-27). The issue was the cross. These disciples misunderstood it. So what did Jesus do? He began with Genesis and went through the whole Bible, unfolding the evidences concerning Himself. Now that is good topical preaching, commended by the Saviour's own example. He used this methodology.
Look now at Acts 8, where we have another incident. Instead of two men walking, this time we have one man riding along in his chariot, going back home from a visit to Jerusalem. The Spirit of God tells Philip to join the chariot. The man is studying the Bible—Isaiah 53. What is the message of Isaiah 53? The message is: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter." "Do you understand what you're reading?" Philip asks. "How can I, unless somebody tells me?" the man replies. "Is this man speaking about himself, or is he talking about somebody else?" Notice that "Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus" (verse 35). Now, I am sure that Philip branched out beyond Isaiah 53, but what was the eunuch's primary interest? His interest was in this particular chapter. And so here we have Philip giving an exposition of Isaiah 53.
What a magnificent thing both these sermons must have been! "Did not our heart burn within us?" the disciples ex claimed following Jesus' topical sermon. (Luke 24:32). When we preach the Word of God, brethren, the hearts of our people, and our own, should burn! Of the Ethiopian, Acts 8:39 says, "He went on his way rejoicing." Why? He had found the Messiah; Philip had revealed it to him out of that chapter.
So both topical preaching and expository preaching can be Biblical preaching. Both are valid methods. Jesus used both. We've already seen an example of His topical preaching, but He was also an expository preacher. If you don't think so, read the Sermon on the Mount, Mat thew 5, 6, and 7, and see His exposition of fundamental truths from the Old Testament. It's a tremendous sermon. I'm not saying, then, that you must shift from topical to expository preaching. But I am saying, Learn this new dimension of Biblical exposition and introduce it to your people. You may discover that you want to shift.
Another consideration is that an expository sermon is not something that you can prepare on Friday (or Saturday) night for delivery the next day. The same is true of a good topical sermon, as well, but it is much easier at the last minute to put something together topically to preach. I've done that; I've gotten caught. I've been busy all week and sat down on Friday night to prepare a sermon for Sabbath morning. If you don't confess to having done the same, it's because I'm more honest than you are! Then Sabbath morning I stand at the door following the service and say to myself, "I hate to meet these people!" Of course some dear soul will always come along and tell me that I preached the most wonderful sermon he (or she) ever heard, but I'm not deceived at all about what took place. The Scriptures promise that God's Word will not return unto Him void. Even though it was poorly presented, God has a way of get ting His truth into the hearts of people and helping them. But that is no excuse for not spending ample time in our sermon preparation, and expository preaching will force us to spend that time.
You probably remember the legend about Sisyphus, a Greek king, who was compelled to roll a huge boulder laboriously up a hill, only to have it come crashing back down the moment he got it to the top. Then he had to begin again to roll it back up. Some preachers experience this same frustrating round. Every single week they have to start rolling that sermon up to eleven-thirty the next Sabbath (or Sunday), and then when twelve o'clock comes, they're back all the way down at the bottom and must start rolling it up again. Too many preachers don't know what to preach on the next week. One Dutch preacher said, "The pulpit should not drive us to the text; the text should drive us to the pulpit." Certain texts in our study should so grip us that we can hardly wait until the next opportunity to present them to our people. We should feel driven, not by the pulpit, but by the text. How do we achieve this?
Adequate sermon preparation demands a deep and continuing study of the Bible. Before we can become a preacher of the Word, we must become students of the Word, and I'm not so sure that many of us can lay claim to being really good Bible students. With some exceptions, we are no longer really immersing ourselves in Scripture, either as preachers or as laymen.
I heard Anglican John Stott talk to theological students at Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, on 1 Timothy 2. He stood without notes and drew from that chapter some of the most magnificent material I had ever heard. He did such a fine expository job, I said to myself, "I know why this man is considered one of the great preachers of our time. He knows the Bible." Later I heard him in Pasadena, California, and bought every book he ever wrote that was on sale at the bookstore there. I read them all. I didn't accept all his exegesis in every respect, of course, but I was amazed to discover how similar his basic teaching is to my own understandings. The reason is simple—when any of us, regardless of our denominational back ground, come close to the Word of God, our theology and religious concepts come close to one another.
How can we become real students of the Word? First of all, the basic approach for the preacher is the devotional study of the Bible when he studies it for his own personal benefit. I assume that you have devotional time in your day when you feed your own soul without thinking specifically of the needs of the congregation. If you don't feed yourself, you're not going to be able to feed them. You'll be scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. Every man ought to have a devotional period—whether it's only a half-hour or three quarters of an hour.
Second, the Bible must be studied exegetically. Its sentences, words, and phrases must be searched carefully for their exact meaning. "There is but little benefit derived from a hasty reading of the Scriptures. . . . One passage studied until its significance is clear to the mind and its relation to the plan of salvation is evident, is of more value than the perusal of many chapters with no definite purpose in view and no positive instruction gained." —Steps to Christ, p. 90.
I'd like to recommend a plan of Bible study that I have followed for a good many years and have found highly profitable. I want to recommend it especially to those of you who are just starting out in your ministry. If you were to spend an hour a day for ninety days with one book of the Bible, you would be able, in a little more than sixteen years, to have spent three months with every single book of the Bible! And when you're in the ministry sixteen years, you are just coming into your prime. From that time on, your preaching will grow with greater and greater power.
You know, there's no such thing as a preacher retiring and becoming a real estate agent. If he knows the Word, the people will want to hear him as long as he has the strength to present it. Your preaching doesn't go bad at 70. It goes bad only when your body and your mind go bad. Your preaching can go on as long as you have a good mind.
So, how do you go about following this plan of studying the Bible? First of all, choose a small book of the Bible. There are many of them—Philemon, Timothy, Titus, Jonah. These books have only three or four chapters. Then say, "For my own personal benefit I'm going to live with this book for ninety days."
I learned something from G. Campbell Morgan. Before he began to prepare studies on a book, he read it through fifty times. One day I said to myself, "I've never read a book fifty times. What would happen if I did?" Well, it took me eight minutes to read Philippians. It has only four chapters; I can read it through in eight minutes. In ninety days I can easily read it fifty times. So I began to read Philippians through. And here is how this plan of Bible study evolved for me the plan I'm recommending to you.
First of all I sat down and read the book all the way through to get an over view of it. And when I had read it through, I read it through again in the Revised Standard Version, in the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, The New English Bible, Moffatt's translation, and all the rest, over and over, from beginning to end. In fact, I got to the place that to help me in my oral reading of the book I would read it on a tape recorder, from the various versions. And then, as I was riding along in my car, I would listen to the book on tape. Pastors often spend a lot of time driving, and you can do a great deal of listening.
What was I doing? Brethren, there's nothing in the world that brings greater joy to the soul than moving into a certain portion of Scripture and "tabernacling" with it, living in it.
Next I said, "Certainly as I read this book the Lord is going to give me some thoughts." Now, I'm not reading any body else. There are just three things— the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and me. Nothing else. No commentaries, nothing. So the idea came to me, "As the Spirit of God impresses you with thoughts, why don't you write them down?" So I made up a notebook, with a page for every chapter and every verse in the entire book. It wasn't a very thick book. I don't remember now how many verses there are in Philippians, but I set up a page for chapter 1 itself, and then a page for each verse in chapter 1. And I did the same for the entire book. Then at the front of the notebook I left a space for the book itself, and I asked myself, "Can I find anything about this book of why it should have been written or who wrote it or when it was written?" I approached Philippians as though I had never seen it before. Brethren, when you approach the Scriptures, lay aside every preconceived opinion and personal prejudice. Don't merely accept other men's thoughts. Learn for yourself what God is saying.
I had a blank notebook, with a page for "Who wrote it?" another page for "Where was it written?" and a page for "Why was it written?" Those are in the front, followed by a page for every verse.
When you get into this kind of a study program, brethren, let me tell you what happens when morning comes. You're anxious to get out of bed early before the wife gets up, before the children get up. You want to get off there by yourself and say, "Lord, I've got to feed my soul." Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, when our Lord was praying? For whom was He praying? Basically He was praying only for Himself. He was making the final great decision for the universe all on His own. His disciples were sleeping, snoring out loud, and He was all alone, clinging to God. And we need to have the same experience. "Lord, help me to fill my own soul. Never mind what my people need. Help me this morning to find what my own soul needs."
So, I'd sit down with God's Word and my notebook. I always prayed first, and then I began to read. Whenever some comment or idea would come to me, I would turn to that blank page and write it down. In the margin I'd put JWO, which happen to be my initials. You'll see why in a few minutes.
Brethren, God speaks to your minds just as well as He does to the mind of anyone else, and when the Spirit of God gives you beautiful thoughts regarding His Word, grab them, for they may fleet away and never come back to you again. Write them down.
I decided to live for ninety days with Philippians, and when I got through, I said, "This is just a start. I'm not going to have time, after all, to get through all sixty-six books before retirement." I was enjoying my study so much that I just kept on.
And then I thought, What do the experts say, who have spent years and years studying the Bible? I wanted to find every book I possibly could that had been written on the book of Philippians, and I made out a 3-by-5 bibliography card for every one. I'd ask some of my friends on the staff of the Seminary, "Do you have any good books to recommend on Philippians?" I'd write them down. Some of these books would have a bibliography in the back. I'd write down these additional books.
In this way I gathered the biggest bibliography I possibly could on the book of Philippians. By study and by contact with certain men whom I knew and by looking over certain books, I chose some of the best and bought them. Then in my personal study every morning I would divide the time between devotional and exegetical reading on Philippians. I'd spend a few minutes reading Philippians itself from beginning to end, just to retain the overall view.
Now remember, this study program is not taking time out of your day's work. This is taking the devotional time that you should spend alone and using it in the most profitable fashion. I'm not saying, "Add this to what you're already doing." I'm saying, "Do this instead of reading randomly in the Word."
As I read a book, I would give each one a code designation. For instance, there was one by Roy Lome, Life Begins. I would make up the bibliography card and put in the upper-right-hand corner LB for Life Begins. Now, why did I do that when I had the bibliography there? As I was reading in Roy Lome's book, I would write down anything significant that interested me on the proper page for that text in my notebook. Then I would put LB and the page number in the margin. I didn't want to write out all that bibliography each time. If in the future I forget what LB is, all I have to do is go to my bibliography card and see that it's Roy Lome's Life Begins.
How much time did I spend accumulating this material? I spent about one year with the book of Philippians. Not only was my own soul blessed but two basic results came out of that study. Number one, I had a prayer meeting series for weeks and weeks and weeks. When you have lived with a book of the Bible that long and you take it chapter by chapter on Wednesday night, I can as sure you that people will come out to hear the Word of God explained so well. Our people love to hear the Word of God from a man who knows what he's talking about. And when you have lived with a book for ninety days, you know what it's saying, and you have something to say.
The other byproduct of studying this way is that you will find in the book of Philippians an endless number of sermons to preach. The outlines will just begin to surface everywhere. I have more outlines on Philippians than I would dare preach at one time, because no matter how good you are, if you preach too long on anything, your people won't like it. They like series, but they like an end to the series. Unless you are really extraordinary, a series of six to eight sermons is long enough. So you will have an enormous amount of mate rial for preaching. Your problem will not be "What in the world will I preach on next week?" You will be frustrated with a far different problem: "What will I choose from all these sermon possibilities?" And that's a much nicer frustration to have.
Brethren, when you start piling up books on your shelf and concentrating your study on a particular book of the Bible, you'll discover that once you have preached part of this material, you'll want to turn to something else. You shouldn't spend the whole next year preaching on the book of Philippians fifty-two times. You may preach six or eight sermons from your study. But the expository approach to Bible study gives you an enormous amount of material to preach from and to enrich your preaching, no matter what Scripture portion you expound.
Our goal should be preaching that causes hearts to burn. "Did not our heart burn within us ... while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32). The hearts of our people will burn only if our own hearts have first felt the flame in the solitude of our study.